The people who lived in Eastern Germany around 7,000 years ago are thought to have been some of the first farmers. Now, new archaeological evidence suggests they were also surprisingly skilled woodworkers, crafting intricate water wells some two thousand years before metal tools were forged in Europe.
Sophisticated in construction, four wells discovered near Leipzig were built using stone carving implements and wooden mauls and wedges, said Willy Tegel, a researcher at the Institute for Forest Growth at the University of Freiburg in Germany.
The first farmers were also the first carpenters, Tegel and his colleagues wrote in a study published this month in the journal PLoS One.
The people who built the wells were members of the so-called Linear Pottery Culture, which produced pottery with distinctive incised lines more than 6,500 years ago. Archaeologists believe these ancient people migrated from areas that are now the Ukraine and Slovakia through the fertile regions of Central Europe.
The wells were discovered as part of an ongoing excavation of areas about 120 miles southwest of Berlin. The wood was intact because it was buried in waterlogged soil where fungi and bacteria - organisms that usually cause wood to decay - could not survive.
Tegel is an expert in a technique known as dendrochronology, which takes advantage of distinctive patterns in tree rings to determine the ages of wooden objects. The method involves comparing the ring patterns in ancient wood to historical reference patterns for a certain region; each time period is unique because the shape and width of the rings varies due to climate and other environmental factors. By establishing a historical match for the outermost ring under the bark, scientists can surmise the year when a tree was chopped down.
The method provides a more precise age for wooden objects than carbon-14 dating, which relies on measurements of a radioactive isotope and can pinpoint the time of a tree's death to only within about 100 years, Tegel said.
Most of Tegel's research involves analyzing ancient tree rings to understand climate conditions long ago. Although dendrochronology is being used more and more by archaeologists, it can't be used in all cases because it's relatively rare to find wood preserved well enough to be analyzed, he said.
Tegel and his collaborators examined 151 oak timbers used to make the newly discovered wells and concluded that the trees were felled between 5469 and 5098 B.C. They also determined that at least 46 trees contributed to the material. These trees were up to 300 years old when harvested, and some were up to 3 feet in diameter.