- This is an ancient joint and has been found joining the wooden planks of the "Khufu ship", a 43.6 m long vessel sealed into a pit in the Giza pyramid complex of the Fourth Dynasty around 2,500 BC.
- It has also been found in archeological sites in the Middle East, Europe and Asia. In traditional Chinese architecture, wood components such as beams, brackets, roof frames and struts were made to interlock with perfect fit, without using fasteners or glues, enabling the wood to expand and contract according to humidity.
- The 30 "sarsen stones" of Stonehenge were dressed and fashioned with mortise and tenon joints before they were erected between 2600 and 2400 B.C.
Re the words mortise and tenon themselves, mortise is from the Middle English mortays, originally from the Old French mortoise. This last root is considered of obscure origin but may derive from the Arabic murtazz, fastened, from irtazza, to be fixed (in place).
Tenon derives from the Old French tenir, to hold, from the Latin tenere.
Mortise and tenon joints are often used in traditional post and beam house framing. The New York Times has a good blog going right now by someone named Lou Ureneck, who is building a cabin in the Maine woods and documenting many of the steps of his project. Here's a photo of the post and beam structure of his small cabin, using mortise and tenon joints: