Stone came first. Then there was bronze. Then there was iron. Since the 1800s, scholars have split early human history into three separate “ages,” according to the main materials that hominins turned into tools and weapons. But what about wood? Was there ever such an age as the “Wood Age?”
The answer is far from simple. Though there is no set period in human history that archaeologists have specifically identified as the “Wood Age,” scholars stress the sustained importance of the material across the three traditional ages of antiquity — with wood having been used extensively by hominins throughout the epochs of stone, bronze, and iron.
With that in mind, learn more about the traditional periodization of early humanity and take a look at the wooden tools and weapons whose existence — while integral to human history — has long been ignored by the established three-age system.
What Is The Three-Age System?
The three-age system is an archaeological periodization adopted in the early 1800s that sorts ancient artifacts and events into three time periods: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. Danish antiquarian Christian Jürgensen Thomsen developed the system in the 1810s while arranging an archaeological collection in Copenhagen according to the artifacts’ chronology and material makeup.
Thomsen’s technical arrangement soon brought three successive stretches of time to the surface, in which artifacts were fashioned first out of stone, then out of bronze, then out of iron.
Predecessors to the Three-Age System
By then, the idea of dividing human history into material ages was nothing new. Almost 1,900 years before Thomsen’s birth, the Greek poet and philosopher Lucretius articulated a similar series of material ages based on innovation, with the sequence of ages becoming more innovative over time. “The nature of the world as a whole is altered by age,” Lucretius said of the system in the first century B.C.E. “Nothing remains forever what it was.”
Is There Evidence of the Three-Age System?
While similar systems of periodization existed before Thomsen’s (Lucretius’ outlined the use of stone, copper, and iron, among other materials), Thomsen’s system was unique in that it was backed by actual artifacts, as opposed to simple speculation. The artifacts of the Copenhagen collection showed — to Thomsen and the countless archeologists that still apply the system today — what, exactly, early humans could create, when, and where.
The Stone Age
The Stone Age, according to archaeological convention, began with the first fabrication of stone tools. But since the timing of that fabrication differed all around the world, the Stone Age began at different times in different areas, with the earliest beginning date being approximately 3 million years ago in Africa. It was there, at an archaeological site in Kenya, that the world’s oldest stone tools were fashioned and wielded by human hands.
The Bronze Age
Once capable of creating stone tools, Stone Age cultures transformed into Bronze Age civilizations by melting and smelting metals, working with copper and then copper alloys, including tin bronzes. Though some scholars consider the initial pure phase of copper metallurgy its own period, the “Copper Age,” others interpret it as part of the Bronze Age. Regardless, while the first copper artifacts appeared in Western Asia around 10,000 years ago, copper and copper alloy smelting only arose in the area around 7,000 years ago.
The Iron Age
Though meteoritic iron was also available throughout the Bronze Age, the beginning of the Iron Age is conventionally taken to coincide with the substitution of smelted bronze with smelted iron in common usage. In Western Asia, this substitution supposedly occurred around 3,200 years ago, when the knowledge of iron metallurgy was suddenly widespread. That said, some of the world's first items fashioned from supposedly smelted iron were found — also in Western Asia — from around 4,500 to 5,000 years ago.
Achievements of the Ages
Of course, other advancements are also associated with these three ages. Alongside the stone industries of the Stone Age came creative artifacts — personal adornments, sedentary art, and mobiliary art — as well as the transition to agriculture. Then came cities and the creation of writing, currency, and commerce; of civil administration and complex architecture; and of organized worship and warfare in the Bronze and Iron Ages.
And yet, nowhere in this traditional account of achievements is there any mention of wood, though some scholars are starting to push against the inattention that’s typically paid to the material.
Was There Ever A ‘Wood Age?’
“Accounts of evolution, prehistory, and history routinely ignore the role played by wood,” asserts author Roland Ennos in The Age of Wood: Our Most Useful Material and the Construction of Civilization, published in 2020. “Anthropologists wax lyrical about the developments of stone tools, and the intellectual and motor skills needed to shape them while brushing aside the importance of the digging sticks, spears, and bows and arrows with which early humans actually obtained their food.”
Equally as troublesome, Ennos asserts, is the dismissal of wood’s applications in the Bronze and Iron Ages. “Archaeologists downplay the role wood fires played in enabling modern humans to cook their food and smelt metals.” Also ignored, Ennos adds, is wood’s role in sheltering and transporting our ancient ancestors, with wooden beams bolstering their cities and wooden wheels and ships transporting them from one area to another.
Early Evidence of Woodworking
In this way, each era in the traditional three-age system may also be described as an age of wood. Yet, it is early in human history that many of the most essential innovations in wood were made.
The Origins of Wood Objects
Already by the time that the hominins emerged, animals had a long history of exploiting the items in their environments — including branches, sticks, and stones — for foraging. Early human species stuck to that tradition, though they eventually started to transform the items that they found into sophisticated, standardized tools.
Fashioned from human hands, the world’s oldest wooden object is a fragment of an approximately 780,000-year-old polished plank from Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in Israel. But while wooden objects only started appearing in the archaeological record around 780,000 years ago, residues on the surface of stone tools suggest that hominin species — maybe Homo erectus or Homo heidelbergensis — worked wood as many as 1,700,000 years ago.
Wood for Tools and Weapons
Once they appeared in the archaeological record, the wooden artifacts at sites where stone tools were also wielded included objects without obvious applications, as well as digging sticks, spears, and pigment and poison applicators, among other objects. Fashioned for taking down prey and pushing and pulling dirt, some of the oldest surviving wooden weapons and foraging tools date back to around 400,000 years ago.
“The objects produced were technically highly sophisticated: The properties of different kinds of wood were well known and used to full advantage, and the skill with which they were made suggests that there may have been craftsmen specializing in woodwork,” states an analysis of Neolithic, or “New Stone Age,” artifacts. “Indeed, in view of the large number and quality of the finds, the Neolithic Age might equally well be termed the Wood Age.”
Wood for Shelter
Alongside their tools and weapons, ancient humans also built structures out of wood. The earliest evidence of wooden structures appears around 476,000 years ago at the Kalambo Falls archaeological site in Zambia, where wooden tools, including digging sticks, were also found. There, two interlocking logs were discovered, which, bearing the telltale signs of being shaped by stone tools, appear to have been part of a much bigger build.
Wood for Fuel
And wooden structures weren't the only thing warming our ancient ancestors. Searing their meals in the Stone Age and melting their metals in the Bronze and Iron Ages were fires, fueled with wood. Of course, early hominins encountered fire well before they created their own flames. Still, some of the earliest evidence of consistent fire use comes from Qesem Cave in Israel, where wood ash accumulations still sit today, from over 400,000 years ago.
What’s Standing in the Way of A ‘Wood Age?’
From all this, it’s apparent that wood was, and still is, important. “Wood is a widely available and versatile material, which has admittedly played a fundamental role in all human history,” states an analysis of wooden tools used by Italian Neanderthals some 171,000 years ago. “Wood, however, is most vulnerable to decomposition. Hence, its use is very rarely documented during prehistory.”
Consequently, since wooden artifacts aren’t abundant in the archaeological record, it is often difficult to determine when and where the material was made into tools and weapons and in what ways. But that’s not a reason, wood scholars say, to dismiss the material's importance altogether.
“Above all, I hope to encourage the reader to look at the world in a way that is unhindered by the conventional wisdom that the story of humanity is defined by our relationship with three materials: stone, bronze, and iron,” Ennos stresses in The Age of Wood. “For the vast majority of our time on this planet, we have lived in an age dominated by this most versatile material... In many ways, we still do.”