The Age of Wood

From The Wall Street Journal:

Human history has traditionally been divided into three “ages,” according to the materials—stone, bronze and finally iron—that our ancient ancestors used to fashion their tools. But until very recently, Roland Ennos reminds us, mankind’s most versatile resource grew on trees. In “The Age of Wood,” he takes a fresh look at the familiar substance, wielding it like a wedge to pry open our past, examine our present and even glimpse our future.

Structurally, wood is a marvel. It is pound for pound as stiff, strong and tough as steel yet relatively easy to shape, such as by splitting and carving. No wonder our prehistoric forebears chose wood (not stone) for their first tools and weapons—pointed sticks for digging tubers and hunting game. The earliest houses, plows, wheels and boats were also made from this accessible, adaptable material. Andwithout firewood for warming themselves, cooking food and keeping predators at bay, Mr. Ennos suggests, our ancestors may never have come down from the trees at all.

Toward the end of the Stone Age, people discovered that if logs were left for a long time in a controlled fire (between 600 and 900 degrees Fahrenheit), they would be reduced to charred chunks that burned hotter than regular wood. Using these lumps of pure carbon—charcoal—artisans were able to fire clay into harder, more waterproof pottery and to fuse sand and ashes to create the first glass. Then, around 5,000 B.C., craftsmen in Eastern Europe and the Near East began to purify copper ore by burning it in charcoal fires and pouring it into ceramic molds to form chisels, ax heads and other tools. Some 1,500 years later, they learned that mixing a little tin with the copper produced a sharper, stronger blade, which could cut through trees twice as fast as stone. The Bronze Age had begun.

Far from reducing mankind’s reliance on wood, Mr. Ennos notes, copper and bronze spurred demand by making it easier to convert logs into houses, furniture, fences and myriad other items. With new metal tools, carpenters also built the first wheels and plank ships, launching an era of unprecedented trade, travel and cultural exchange. In the Americas, by contrast, metallurgy didn’t develop, the plank ship was unknown, and the only wheels were made of clay and fitted to children’s toys. “The result,” Mr. Ennos writes, “was to give the people of the Old World a massive lead in logistics, one that five thousand years later was to help them discover the New World and subdue its people.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

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