The discovery of a previously unknown wooden structure at Buddha's birthplace suggests the sage might have lived in the sixth century BC, centuries earlier than thought, archaeologists said.
"This is one of the very rare occasions when tradition, belief, archaeology and science come together," archaeologist Robin Coningham, the lead scientist on the dig, told Al Jazeera in an email.
The team of 40 archaeologists discovered what appears to have been an ancient timber shrine under a brick temple inside the sacred Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini, and ancient place of worship considered to be the birthplace of Buddha located in southern Nepal near the Indian border.
The traces were scientifically tested and confirm dating to the sixth century, predating all known Buddhist sites by 300 years, archaeologists said Monday.
The project, supported by the National Geographic, sheds light on a long debate over when the Buddha was born and, in turn, when the faith that grew out of his teachings took root, said Conginham.
Buddha's nativity story relates that his mother, Maya Devi, was traveling from her husband's kingdom to her parents when she stopped at Lumbini midway, grasped a tree and gave birth to the Buddha.
The newly discovered structure, Coningham said, dates to the sixth century BC and provides a date for the beginning of the Lumbini sequence.
"This date supports those Buddhist traditions which advocate the 'long chronology' for his life as opposed to those traditions which would indicate that he was born in the 400s BC," Coningham said.
Much of what is known about Buddha's life has its origins in oral tradition with little scientific evidence, he also explained.
"Previous studies of early Buddhism have been based on written textual records and chronicles compiled after centuries of oral transmission, as the Buddha lived long before writing was introduced to South Asia," Coningham said.
The discovery means "we actually have physical evidence of what the earliest structures looked like and what his earliest followers actually did as opposed to what later writers thought they did," he added.
Knowing when Buddha was born helps shed light on the social and economic context of his life and the impact it has had on his teachings.
"This was a fairly turbulent period with traditional societies within the Ganges Plain being challenged by the growth of urbanization, coinage, states and kingship, standing armies, the growth of the middle class and traders," Coningham said. "It is precisely this environment which spurs the growth in the numbers of renounceant teachers — of which the Buddha was one — teaching that there was more than the accumulation of wealth and goods."
Lumbini, overgrown by jungle before its rediscovery in 1896, is a UNESCO world heritage site, visited by millions of pilgrims every year. Buddhism has more than 500 million followers worldwide.
In a statement, UNESCO director general Irina Bokova called for "more archaeological research, intensified conservation work and strengthened site management" at Lumbini as it attracts growing numbers of visitors.
Al Jazeera and wire services. Amel Ahmed contributed to this report.