Should the Stone Age be called the Wood Age?

New research suggests it might be more correct to call the Stone Age the “Wood Age.”

It was in 1836 that Danish antiquarian Christian Jürgensen Thomsen first proposed the subdivisions of prehistory that have become part of our understanding of human development today. He suggested the basic chronology: Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.

Since then, a fuller understanding of ancient human societies has seen additions to Thomsen’s formula.

The Stone Age is split into 3: Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age), Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) and Neolithic (New Stone Age). There’s also been the addition of the Copper Age, centred in the Eastern Mediterranean.

“Stone Age” has really stuck as denoting the part of human history in which we were hunter-gatherers, before the development of metal smelting technologies which allowed us to transform our societies fully into sedentary settlements.

But a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that “Stone Age” might be a misnomer.

Unlike stone, wood doesn’t age well. Wooden objects perish over thousands of years.

Recently, however, thousands of wooden artefacts from the distant human past have been uncovered.

One site which has proven particularly rich in finds is at Schöningen in Germany, about 170 km west of Berlin. For the last 30 years, archaeologists have unearthed nearly 200 ancient wooden artefacts dating to about 300,000 years ago. Among the finds is a double-pointed throwing stick.

Even older wood artefacts made by ancient humans have been found in Africa and the Middle East, dating back 780,000 years. There’s even indirect evidence, in the form of use-wear on human stone tools, that indicates our ancestors were woodworking 1.5–2 million years ago.

The authors of the new study used CT-scanning to show that the wooden implements found at Schöningen were not just sharpened sticks, but “technologically advanced tools” used for throwing and potentially even fishing.

They match the period up to a stage of human evolution, about the same time as the emergence of anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) and neanderthals, which saw an increase in human brain size. This, they suggest, could be put down to the use of these advanced wooden tools. Could it be that this period would be better referred to as the “Wood Age”?

It’s not a completely new idea.

A 1985 paper in the journal Endeavour, titled “The Neolithic or Wood Age,” argues a similar case.

“Although perishable under many conditions, wooden artifacts from the Neolithic period [12,000–4,200 years ago] have been remarkably well preserved in peat bogs and lakes. Indeed, in view of the large number and quality of the finds, the Neolithic Age might equally well be termed the Wood Age,” the authors of the 1985 paper wrote.

While wood is not as well preserved as stone, it appears that the increased number of finds and the sophistication of wooden tools from hundreds of thousands of years ago might suggest that stone was not the only material which made waves in the so-called “Stone Age.”

Sign up to our weekly newsletter

Please login to favourite this article.