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Wednesday, 1 March, 2000, 19:11 GMT
World's oldest building discovered
The previous oldest hut was from at Terra Amata in France
Previous oldest hut was found in France
Japanese archaeologists have uncovered the remains of what is believed to be the world's oldest artificial structure, on a hillside at Chichibu, north of Tokyo.

The shelter would have been built by an ancient ancestor of humans, Homo erectus, who is known to have used stone tools. The site has been dated to half a million years ago, according to a report in New Scientist.

It consists of what appear to be 10 post holes, forming two irregular pentagons which may be the remains of two huts. Thirty stone tools were also found scattered around the site.

Important discovery

"It does sound important," says Chris Stringer, head of the human origins group at London's Natural History Museum. "If this is correctly dated and correctly interpreted, it is the first good evidence from 500,000 years ago of a hut structure made by these people."

Before the discovery, the oldest remains of a structure were those at Terra Amata in France, from around 200,000 to 400,000 years ago.

The Japanese site was discovered during the construction of a park. After digging through about two metres of river deposits, archaeologists found a layer of volcanic ash in which the shallow post holes were dug. Ofer Bar-Yosef, an anthropologist at Harvard University, says Japanese dating techniques using volcanic ash are usually reliable.

The holes were clearly distinct from the volcanic layer, says Kazutaka Shimada, curator of the Meiji University Museum in Tokyo. "They had well-defined edges."

Temporary accomodation

The remains could help explain how Homo erectus lived and hunted. "It's evidence that they built structures but how permanent this was we don't know," says Dr Stringer. "Who knows whether this was a shelter they stayed in for one week, or one month."

John Rick, an anthropologist at Stanford University, says that if the find is confirmed it will be interesting because it shows that hominids could conceive of using technology to organise things.

"They had the idea of actually making a structure, a place where you might sleep. It represents a conceptual division between inside and outside."

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