Book Summary: “The Age of Wood” by Roland Ennos


Title: The Age of Wood: Our Most Useful Material and the Construction of Civilization
Author: Roland Ennos
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Ennos makes the compelling case that wood has been the most important material in human history. It has been equally important for early hominins, Hunter Gatherers, Agricultural societies and Industrial societies.

Key Take-aways

  • Wood has been the most important material in human history.
  • Most of the physical characteristics that we associate with being uniquely human are actually common to many primates. They were adaptations for living in trees and consuming fruits.
  • Burning of wood enabled hominins to come down from the trees.
  • Wooden bow-and-arrows enabled humans to become peak predators.
  • Early stone tools were primarily used for shaping wood to create wooden tools.
  • Wood has enabled us to build homes, tools, boats, buildings and wheels.
  • Charcoal, a wood biproduct, enabled us to fire ceramics and smelt copper, bronze and iron.
  • Even as late as 1900, most technology was built largely from wood.
  • Many innovations in the use of metal enabled us to more effectively use wood.

Important Quotes from Book

“Accounts of human evolution, prehistory, and history routinely ignore the role played by wood. For instance, 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. Archaeologists downplay the role wood fires played in enabling modern humans to cook their food and smelt metals. Technologists ignore the way in which new metal tools facilitated better woodworking to develop the groundbreaking new technologies of wheels and plank ships. And architectural historians ignore the crucial role of wood in roofing medieval cathedrals, insulating country houses, and underpinning whole cities.”

“It became clear to me that wood has actually played a central role in our history. It is the one material that has provided continuity in our long evolutionary and cultural story, from apes moving about the forest, through spear-throwing hunter-gatherers and ax-wielding farmers to roof-building carpenters and paper-reading scholars.”

“The foundations of our relationship with wood lie in its remarkable properties. As an all-round structural material it is unmatched. It is lighter than water, yet weight for weight is as stiff, strong, and tough as steel and can resist both being stretched and compressed. It is easy to shape, as it readily splits along the grain, and is soft enough to carve, especially when green. It can be found in pieces large enough to hold up houses, yet can be cut up into tools as small as a toothpick. It can last for centuries if it is kept permanently dry or wet, yet it can also be burned to keep us warm, to cook our food, and drive a wide range of industrial processes. With all these advantages, the central role of wood in the human story was not just explicable, but inevitable.”

“So it is time to reassess the role of wood. This book is a new interpretation of our evolution, prehistory, and history, based on our relationship with this most versatile material.

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. It refutes the common assumption that wood is little more than an obsolete relic from our distant past.”

“The big divide between primates and other mammals stems from the ways in which primates are adapted to a life in trees. And despite our now being terrestrial animals, we resemble other primates because we have retained most of these arboreal adaptations. Surprisingly, we were preadapted to our life on the ground by the evolution of our relatives’ bodies and brains to live in the forest canopy: in a world made of wood.”

“<Primates> share with us many key derived characteristics: binocular vision, with the eyes both pointing forward; an upright body posture; differentiation of the limbs between hind legs and feet for locomotion, and arms and hands for gripping; and soft pads and nails on the tips of their digits, instead of claws. We usually think of these characteristics as being human adaptations, but they actually first evolved to help primates live in trees.”

“Those primates that changed their diet to eat fruit rather than leaves also tended to get bigger because fruit is plentiful in rain forests and is full of energy; however, a diet of fruit has also led to rather more profound changes in their brains. As a food, fruit has many advantages. ”

“evidence is starting to build that the evolution of bipedalism did not take place on the ground… our ancestors gained their ability to walk bipedally when they still lived in the trees.”

“So how did early humans finally come down permanently from the trees? The only plausible way that our ancestors could have protected themselves on the ground at night from predators was by using fire. This is where the second of wood’s fortuitous properties comes in: it is flammable, especially when dry, and when it is burned, it releases a large amount of heat and light.”

“Setting up a permanent camp, and being able to sit together around the campfire, would have had other advantages. It would help to keep the hominins warmer during the cool nights typical of savanna regions. The light from the fire would also help lengthen the time when individuals could carry out tasks such as making and mending tools. There would also be opportunities for a greater variety of social interactions: sharing food and exchanging information. Having a permanent fire would help speed up the evolution of both practical and social skills.”

“But perhaps an even more important benefit of a campfire was that it could be used to cook food. In his 2009 book, Catching Fire, Richard Wrangham has put forward a convincing case that cooking would have been a crucial step in the evolution of modern humans—one of the main stages that took us from being semiarboreal, bipedal apes to being more or less human. As he points out, cooking meat and vegetables has two main effects—on their mechanical properties, and on their chemistry—that would have enabled hominins to radically change their digestive apparatus and behavior.”

“Modern hunter-gatherers spend far less time chewing their food even than apes that eat relatively soft fruit; they chew for less than an hour a day compared with five or six hours for chimpanzees. This frees up plenty of time for other tasks, such as looking after the fire, making a permanent camp, toolmaking, or further foraging.”

“what comes out most strikingly from modern research on early humans is that the key to becoming terrestrial was to make use of wood, and in particular to exploit two of its fortuitously useful properties. In the first stage of becoming terrestrial, early hominins would have made use of wood’s becoming stiffer as it dries out, to fashion and use digging sticks to obtain their new source of food: underground storage organs. In the second stage, early members of our own genus Homo would have made use of the flammability of dry wood to make fires that could protect them from predators and cook their food. Our escape from the trees was paradoxically aided by a burgeoning relationship with the material they make: wood.”

“It was therefore because early hominins were sleeping inside wooden huts that they could afford to lose their body hair. And this would in turn have made us even more dependent on our practical woodworking skills, to make fires and build ever-more-elaborate shelters, and eventually to use other materials to make sheets and clothing.”

“First of all, primatologists have found that our relatives, the apes, produce a wide range of tools, so humans cannot be exalted over other animals because they were the first toolmakers. Second, most of the tools made by apes—spears, chisels, digging sticks, and nests—are made of wood, not stone, and it is highly likely that early hominins would have inherited their woodworking skills from the apes. So the first tools used by early hominins would have been made of wood, not stone. Third, even the reconstructions of the lives of early hominins that have been made by devotees of stone make it obvious that they used mainly wooden tools—to hunt animals, to dig up plant roots, and to construct shelters—and that they burned wood to keep off predators, keep themselves warm, and cook their food. ”

“The increasing success of humans is best explained by their development of their wooden tools, particularly their weapons. ”

“The first real intellectual advance that hominins made must have occurred when our ancestors started to use stone tools not just to process their kills but to construct wooden tools.”

“Bows have three major advantages over all the other techniques we have seen. First, since our muscles can produce more energy when contracting slowly, a bow can release more energy to a projectile, so that arrows can be shot over nine hundred feet. ”

“Second, since a bow is drawn with a slow, smooth movement, it can be aimed far better and is a far more accurate weapon than a spear. Finally, since from the front the archer barely seems to move, she or he is far less conspicuous to prey than a javelin thrower, so the bow and arrow makes a much better stealth weapon. The bow and arrow quickly became the hunting weapon of choice, ”

“Our killing power had extended from the simple close-quarters dispatch of a small primate, to being able to kill large ungulates (and other people) over two hundred yards away. The development of wooden weapons had made us an apex predator, allowing us to inflict a mass extinction on the world around us.”

“If there is one symbol of the Neolithic period, the time when humans first made a major impact on the environment by starting to farm the land, it is the polished stone ax.”

“Only in the last sixty years have we started to realize how effective Neolithic polished axes could be at cutting wood and what a vital role they played in our rise to civilization, clearing the forest, spreading farming around the world, and building the first farmsteads, villages, and towns… their success is just the first of many cases in which technological advances in other materials helped people make far better use of the material they had always exploited: wood.”

“The new woodworking technology also allowed people to improve their mobility and hunting prowess by constructing two very different types of boat. ”

“though advances in woodworking were not essential to the development of farming in the Near East, they were essential to its spread across Europe. Improved stone tools helped migrating farmers clear the land of trees, opening up a whole new way of life, and enabling them to migrate and colonize the continent of Europe in far greater numbers than the hunter-gatherers they supplanted. The story was much the same in other areas of the world,”

“in every area it was the new polished stone tools that enabled people to clear forests and cultivate the land. They enabled the farmers to meet a huge variety of their needs, from building large houses, fencing their fields, making their tools, fashioning their furniture and houseware, building their boats, and even making their roads.”

“Neolithic people fired their pots in holes in the ground—the first kilns—which enabled them to raise temperatures to around 1,500°F. However, to obtain consistently high temperatures they were also the first to convert wood into a new, more concentrated, source of energy that consists of pure carbon—charcoal.”

“But by far the most important use people made of charcoal, at least in the Old World, was to smelt metals. Because charcoal is made of the highly reactive element carbon, if they used it to burn metal oxides, it did not merely heat them up, but also removed the oxygen from the ore to produce pure metal.”

“More than any other technology, it was plank ships that enabled the Mediterranean to become the crucible of civilization in the West. They could carry people and goods quickly and freely across a vast maritime region, accelerating material and intellectual progress and allowing large cities to be supplied. The Roman Empire would have been politically unsustainable without huge ships to transport wheat from its Egyptian colony to supply the citizens of Rome with a free bread supply. And plank ships later did a similar job around Arabia, India, and the Far East, maintaining the communications and trade links that were vital to coordinate growing empires.”

“If bronze tools would have made building plank ships far easier, they would have been essential for constructing the structure that transformed land transport and went on to make machinery practical: the wheel.”

“new technologies do not replace old ones, but inspire new ways to use them. In the case of copper and bronze, the major impact of the new materials was to enable people in the Old World to exploit their main structural material, wood, more effectively, allowing them to revolutionize their transport networks. The result 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.”

“You only have to visit an open-air museum to see how wood dominated the lives of our forebears. ”

“Craftsmen therefore gradually developed a new set of woodworking techniques that shaped wood after it had been dried out or “seasoned” rather than before—carpentry. And to do so they invented and perfected a new set of tools that fully exploited the superior stiffness and hardness of iron and steel.”

“The Iron Age was a world in which wood dominated people’s lives, something that remained the case right up until the last two hundred years.”

“The history of architecture can be seen as the development of increasingly effective techniques to harness timber to stabilize and shelter ostensibly stone buildings.”

“ though trees could have grown fast enough to supply all the fuel and timber needs of preindustrial countries, even densely populated ones with low forest cover such as England, there would have been a problem in actually cutting and transporting the wood to where it was needed. In forests, wood is evenly spread over huge areas”

“It’s not surprising, therefore, that in medieval Europe it was only ports, and cities on large navigable rivers, that grew to any reasonable size.”

“Industry was better sited well away from cities, and in areas where trees grew well but crops did not, so that there was little competition for land. In premodern times, therefore, industrial units were largely small-scale rural enterprises, in contrast to the large urban mills of the Industrial Age. ”

“Supply problems were just one of many factors that conspired to prevent an increase in the output and productivity of wood-based trades. As we have seen, it is a complex and time-consuming process to make even the simplest of items out of wood using the hand tools of the carpenter. ”

“The small size and scattered nature of the woodcrafts also helped stifle innovation and stall technological progress. Even if a craftsman made a useful innovation, it would be unlikely to spread because it would have been hard to pass on.”

 “Cast iron that the ironmasters produced proved to be no substitute for timber… As an engineering material, it could only safely be used to replace masonry, not wood.”

“The key to the ability of nineteenth-century engineers to build a new industrial world, to construct bridges of record length, buildings of unprecedented size and novel design, and gigantic ships was the invention of a rather different material: wrought iron. Ten times as stiff as wood, up to three times as strong in tension, and ten times as tough, wrought iron was the first material with mechanical properties superior to those of timber that could be made in large quantities and in large pieces. Invented in 1783–84 by an ironmaster from Lancashire, Henry Cort,”

“Of all structures, wrought iron transformed the building of ships the most. ”

“But if wisdom ranks above wealth, as the motto of my old school claims, one nineteenth-century development must be more important than any bridge or house: the ability to make paper from wood pulp. ”

“America, more than any other industrial nation, stayed rooted within the Age of Wood right up to the start of the twentieth century.”

 “By the end of the nineteenth century, wood’s importance was hardly diminished.”

“But the United States had started to use its vast reserves of timber to build a unified nation and to catch up economically with Europe. The rapid logging of the Great Lakes area supplied the timber needed to construct the infrastructure of a modern state—one that looked like that of Europe, only made of wood. With its wooden railways, wooden houses, wooden factories, and even wooden roads, all of which could be constructed swiftly and cheaply, it even started to overtake Europe.”

“If the nineteenth century saw timber replaced in large-scale structures, the twentieth century saw the invention of new materials that replaced wood for many small-scale applications: plastics. ”

“Books are full of deforestation myths, ”

“The truth is very different. We have certainly had a huge effect on the world’s forests: reducing forest cover and changing the composition of the forests that do remain. However, people have found ways of coping with the loss of forest, maintaining an adequate supply of wood while avoiding environmental collapse.”

“Over time the same patterns kept recurring all across the world. The most obvious one is that whenever farmers colonized new regions, the first places that they settled in were those that had previously been covered in broad-leaved forest; it was simply the best, most productive land. They did not cut the trees down for firewood or timber, but to clear the land so that they had space to plant their own crops.”

“In contrast, for the most part farmers avoided conifer forests because they were an excellent indication that the land was too poor to farm.”

“The consequence of this pattern of settlement was that the wealthiest, most stable, and longest-lived states grew up in areas formerly dominated by broad-leaved forest. The great civilizations of Ancient Greece, Rome, and China were all based in such areas. It was the states on former grassland and desert regions, states that were fed by irrigated land, such as the Mesopotamian civilizations of the Middle East, the Anasazi sites of New Mexico, and the many civilizations around the Andes, that tended to collapse. ”

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