Giorgio Manzi explains to why it’s exciting

A 476,000-year-old complex wooden structure was found at an archaeological site in Zambia, Africa, and is the oldest ever discovered. Paleontologist Giorgio Manzi tells us why this discovery is so extraordinary, and so important for better understanding our ancestors.

meeting with Giorgio Manzi

Paleontologist, Professor at the Department of Environmental Biology at Sapienza University of Rome

On the left is Professor Giorgio Manzi and on the right is the 476,000-year-old wooden structure and its discoverers. Credit: Wikipedia/Larry Parham, University of Liverpool

At the archaeological site Kalambo Fallsin Zambia (Africa), a British research team did this An exceptional discovery. Scientists from the University of Liverpool and Aberystwyth University, led by Prof Larry BarhamIn fact, they’ve found one Complex wooden structure Which according to dating analytics is well built 476,000 years ago. I mean, way before that Homo sapiens They appeared about 180 thousand years later. So one of our distant ancestors was actually capable of creativity Tools With this material, and perhaps with other stone tools. Experts assume that the structure is built Interlocking Made by a Carthusian craftsman, it could serve to contain frequent floods, or serve as a seat for constructing other artefacts. It’s simply extraordinary, considering it’s nearly half a million years old.

“This discovery changed the way I thought about our early ancestors. Forget the ‘Stone Age’ label, and look at what these people were doing: they created something new and wonderful out of wood. They used their intelligence, imagination and skill to create something they had never seen before, something that did not exist.” before. Mr. Barham is excitedWho teaches in the Department of Archeology and Egyptology at the University of Liverpool. “They transformed their surroundings to make life easier, if only by building a platform to sit on beside the river to do daily chores. “These people were more like us than we thought,” the scientist added, to better understand the scope of this discovery and its consequences. It was published in the journal Nature, I called the professor Giorgio Manzi, professor at the Department of Environmental Biology at Sapienza University of Rome. Here’s what he told us.

Image source: Larry Parham, University of Liverpool

Image source: Larry Parham, University of Liverpool

Professor Manzi, first we ask you why this 476,000-year-old wooden structure is so important from a scientific point of view.

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There are different reasons. First of all, it confirms something we’ve known for some time: creatures close to us – I use this rather broad expression to mean even Australopithecus and certainly the early representatives of the genus Homo, like Homo habilis – were not just producers of stone tools, those dating back to the Paleolithic But they used these tools to produce other tools. So it’s a kind of assembly line, let’s call it that, that we’re the only ones on the planet that make it. There are other life forms that use or even produce tools themselves, for example chimpanzees, or beavers that build dams, to survive on the theme of wood. But only humans and their ancestors produce from one tool another, and another, and so on. Possibly on different supports: stone, horn, wood, etc. This is the first important fact.

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the second?

The second is that wood, unfortunately, like other perishable materials, is almost never found in archaeological sites. Traces of the use of wood have been found much older than those dating back to 476,000 years ago, but they are in fact traces. Maybe some small sharp instruments. Something even more important, about 400 thousand years ago from the present, is found in Europe in peat deposits, a substance that in a special way preserves organic finds, including wood. They are the famous spears of Schöningen. It is a site in Germany where these beautiful spears, a few meters high, were found between 1994 and 1998. They are long and pointed at the top and are also hardened by fire. There are also other structures, probably wooden, of which only the stone bases remain. One European site important from this point of view, and somewhat discussed, is Terra Amata, in southern France. Here a cobblestone was found that was arranged in a particular way, suggesting the base of a tent, perhaps made of wood and branches.

The third reason for interest is that here we encounter something truly special. We do not encounter an architectural hypothesis, such as that of Terra Amata, nor do we encounter small objects, such as nails.

Image source: Larry Parham, University of Liverpool

Image source: Larry Parham, University of Liverpool

Indeed, the pictures published by his colleagues show a very huge structure

Not only is it large, it is much more complex than a spear. Here we are in front of a real craftsman’s work, as we call it in today’s words, even with the assumption that there is a real architectural structure. These joints they identified between two elements in particular are like those still made by wood craftsmen today. Or rather, it was done until a few decades ago or in the nineteenth century, and now there are few craftsmen. Perhaps to build a door jamb, or a connection to a corridor. Obviously we don’t know what this is for, but it’s complicated. It is literally non-trivial, complex and architecturally ambiguous, if we want to use that term excessively (but not too much).

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We have read some hypotheses regarding the function of this structure: a platform to cope with the frequent floods in the area, a bench to work on other artifacts or even part of the house. In your opinion, what is the topic?

“Home” seems to me an excessive word, let’s say a refuge structure, a shelter. The Tuareg call them eheren. It could be a shelter, not a building or a door to enter a building, even if it is small. We will play with our imagination a lot. Let us first say that we do not know what their purpose was, and that in the context of the knowledge we have of that era and those populations, they were probably temporary structures. Maybe for a specific purpose. This is the third really amazing element, which is that in the context of the very rare prehistoric wooden evidence, and in light of the fact that we can already imagine it but now we have one of the most beautiful pieces of evidence, we and I now know that men did this with their stone tools and other material tools. Other. We also have a complex and refined structure.

Image source: Larry Parham, University of Liverpool

Image source: Larry Parham, University of Liverpool

Who can build this structure? Homo sapiens (modern humans) is certainly not, given that they appeared about 300,000 years ago, long after the Temple was dated.

Perhaps, in my opinion, the creator of this marvel is Homo Heidelbergensis. We knew him better only a few decades ago. It is somewhat debated among various specialists because of the name, as it is a single species. There is an ongoing debate. Simply put, it is a large and important species, and even more so because it gave rise to three of its most famous descendants: the Neanderthals of Europe; Homo sapiens (us) in Africa, where artisans are located; And the Denisovans. There is a type of trident that branches off from these ancestral types. This is the same reason why Fabio Di Vincenzo and I, along with my Chinese colleagues, assumed that origin in Africa is linked to a strong demographic bottleneck. All in one An article published a few weeks ago in Science magazine. We hypothesized that Homo heidelbergensis appeared in Africa about 900,000 years ago, long before the appearance of the wooden skeleton, as a result of a major demographic bottleneck identified by the algorithms of our Chinese colleagues. It is precisely from this genetic and demographic bottleneck that new species with “new” biological and ecological resources could have emerged, such as allowing them to spread, moving towards Eurasia, and thus giving rise to Neanderthals and Denisovans. We are Homo sapiens in Africa.

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Therefore, the two stories are very interconnected

Yes, because the new species has more resources than its predecessors, having overcome a very strong bottleneck about 800,000 years ago. It arose from this crisis and this historical drama. He may also have had the new resources to learn how to work with wood better.

Image source: Larry Parham, University of Liverpool

Image source: Larry Parham, University of Liverpool

Have you hypothesized the reason for this demographic bottleneck?

Climate, most likely. It must have been particularly difficult at that time. About a million years ago, glacial cycles began to hit the planet repeatedly, north of the Mediterranean in the form of true glaciation, while in Africa, where there was a bottleneck, with phases of severe drought. Thus fragmenting the environment and reducing resources, food and population.

So this was the evolutionary push that gave life to all three species, including our own

According to evolutionary biology, great evolutionary innovations occur precisely in small, isolated groups. So a genetic bottleneck of this kind, paradoxically in its dramatic nature, was productive.

Were those who built the wooden structure nomads or sedentary? I read somewhere that this work could indicate a certain stable nature of its creators

They were relatively nomadic. They were like that to the extent that all hunter-gatherers are like that. It depends a lot on the context, on the present moment, and there is no real rule. However, they tend to be nomadic. They move around the area only to find themselves in the same places the following season. They spend their summers on the one hand and winters on the other, chasing natural resources, because hunter-gatherers live off what nature has to offer. They may also have structures found the following year in the same place, but the permanent residents will come much later, much later.


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