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Stone Age Tools Show Rise of Lumberjacks

During the Neolithic Period (around 10000 to 6000 B.C.) humans in the Near East made a drastic transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers settled in villages. A new study finds we can trace this shift in the development of Neolithic toolkits used to cut wood, suggesting the earliest farmers were also the earliest lumberjacks.

"Intensive woodworking and tree-felling was a phenomenon that only appeared with the onset of the major changes in human life, including the transition to agriculture and permanent villages," researcher Ran Barkai said in a statement from Tel Aviv University.

"We can document step by step the transition from the absence of woodworking tools, to delicate woodworking tools, to heavier woodworking tools," Barkai said, adding that this archeological record follows the "actual transition from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture."

Barkai and his team documented these changes in tools found at the Motza archaeological site — located in Israel, just west of Jerusalem — which was inhabited by Neolithic groups for nearly five thousand years.

In the early stages of the Neolithic period, known as the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA), humans were still gathering their food but they started settling in more permanent homes for the first time, laying the groundwork for complex communities. Analysis of the wear-and-tear on the small axes from this period at Motza shows that these tools were likely used for clearing brush, light carpentry and chopping and splitting small logs and tree branches, the researchers said.

In the next phase, the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB), humans began farming and domesticating animals. At the same time, they added more heavy-duty axes to their toolkits, evidence from Motza shows. These heavier and larger tools could have been used to cut down trees and complete various building projects, like homes and animal pens, Barkai and his team explained in a paper in the journal PLoS ONE.

These changes also happened in step with the rise of rectangular structures in Neolithic settlements, which required more wood.

"Evidence tells that us that for each home, approximately 10 wooden beams were needed," Barkai said. "Prior to this, there were no homes with wooden beams."