Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Stone Age Humans Used Wood


Humans of the Stone Age were extremely resourceful. They used organic materials close at hand to fabricate tools and useful implements. Gesher Benot Ya'aqov in Israel, is an ancient site on the bank of the Jordan River south of the historic Lake Hula. Excavations exposed the remains of fires from 780,000 years ago. There is evidence of cooked plant foods, nuts, and fish. Some wood is also preserved in the sediments, including a wooden plank with intentional shaping. This currently is the oldest modified wooden artifact in the archaeological record.

Dr. John Hawks, a world renown paleoanthropologist, recently wrote a fascinating article about the prehistoric use of organic materials. The article focuses mainly on the use of wood. Hawks wrote: 

"The most well-known archaeological site with ancient wood is Schöningen, in central Germany. At the edge of a lake 300,000 years ago, people hunted horses and left behind the butchered horse bones, stone tools, and many wooden spears, throwing sticks, and other artifacts."


Another site where Stone Age wooden artifacts have been found is in Italy. Hawks explains:

"Poggetti Vecchi, Italy, is a site with thermal pools that preserve evidence of straight-tusked elephants and other animals from around 170,000 years ago. Archaeologists have uncovered least 39 wooden tools, many of them interpreted as digging sticks. Many of them were described in 2018 in an article led by Biancamaria Aranguren.

All the artifacts identified at Poggetti Vecchi were made from boxwood, Buxus sempervirens."


Another discovery too place at Kalambo Falls. The Kalambo Falls is just upstream of where it enters Lake Tanganyika. Hawks reports:

"Last year, Lawrence Barham and collaborators reported an unexpected discovery from their recent work at Kalambo Falls. Opening new excavations into the riverbank deposits, they uncovered many wood artifacts. These include an apparent digging stick, logs that were cut by stone blades, and a remarkable pair of logs that had been notched to fit one over the other. Barham and coworkers are not sure what the function of the notched log structure may have been, but they speculate that it may have served as the foundation of a hut or shelter, or it may have served as a platform or part of a walkway, or even as a workbench. What is clear is that ancient hominins applied patterned effort to shape the logs and build with them. This structure is around 476,000 years old."


Also in Africa, Hawks notes:

"one of the earliest wooden artifacts from Africa is from Florisbad, South Africa. That site is a natural spring with peat deposits that can preserve organic materials for a very long time. A number of wooden artifacts were identified during excavation of the springs in the 1930s and thereafter, but these tended to disintegrate quickly after excavation. The anthropologist Kenneth Oakley visited Florisbad and took one wooden artifact to London, where the wood was treated with chemicals similar to those used to preserve artifacts from later waterlogged sites. The artifact was later examined by Desmond Clark, who interpreted it as the broken point of a larger throwing stick. In 2003, Marion Bamford and Zoë Henderson carried out a re-examination of this artifact to provide some modern detail. One of the most interesting aspects was the wood that it is made from: kundanyoka knobwood (Zanthoxylum chalybeum), which today occurs no further south than Zimbabwe. The implication is that a very much warmer climate occurred around Florisbad at the time this tool was made, although the dating and context of the artifact are still uncertain."

Hawks points out that wooden artifacts also have been found in southwestern China. Xing Gao and collaborators excavated a large area south of the city of Kunming and exposed levels of ancient lakeshore between 361,000 and 250,000 years old. The excavations revealed stone artifacts, remains of varied plants and pollen, and 35 wooden tools.

Additionally, Hawks notes that "Aranbaltza is a floodplain site in northern Spain, with several archaeological localities dating back to between 140,000 and 50,000 years ago. One of these localities is Aranbaltza III, where in 2015 Joseba Rios-Garaizar and coworkers recovered a pointed wooden tool, around 20 cm in length. The evidence of crushing and wear at the pointed end suggested that this stick had been used for digging."

Read more about Stone Age wooden artifacts here: "Four amazing Stone Age sites with ancient wooden artifacts"

Related reading: Materials Science (Part 1 - Metals); Materials Science (Part 2 - Ores); Materials Science (Part 3 - Resins and Oils); Materials Science (Part 4 - Conglomerates); Archaic Shell Technology

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