Archaeologists have uncovered ruins at Buddha's birthplace dating the religious leader to the sixth century BC and supporting the long-held tradition that Buddha's mother held to a tree when giving birth to him.

Discovered beneath a series of brick temples within a pilgrimage site in Lumbini, Nepal, the remains are those of an ancient timber structure, which carbon dating has placed some 2,600 years back in time.

"Very little is known about the life of the Buddha, except through textual sources and oral tradition," said archaeologist Professor Robin Coningham of Durham University, UK, noting that some have argued Buddha was born in the third century BC.

Given the lack of concrete evidence, Coningham, who co-led the investigation said, "We thought 'why not go back to archaeology to try to answer some of the questions about his birth?' Now, for the first time, we have an archaeological sequence at Lumbini that shows a building there as early as the sixth century BC."

According to Buddhist tradition, Buddha's mother gave birth while holding onto the branch of a tree within the Lumbini Garden, located part way between her husband's and parents' kingdoms. Based on the way the timber structure was built, with an open space in the center, the archaeologists posit it could have housed a tree. Brick temples built later on above the ancient shrine were also arranged around this central space, underscoring its apparent centrality in the overall site.

The ancient Emperor Asoka of the Mauryan dynasty in India visited the site in the third century BC, erecting sandstone pillar that still stands today, documenting his visit. Over the millennia it became lost to human memory until it was rediscovered in the overgrown jungles of Nepal in 1896.

One of several key Buddhist sites, it is unique the longevity of its record: For many, the earliest levels were buried deep or destroyed due to later construction.

Writing in the journal Antiquity, the authors note that "The sequence (of archaeological remains) at Lumbini is a microcosm for the development of Buddhism from a localized cult to a global religion."