A team of archaeologists from Australia has discovered a small fragment has 46,000-49,000-year-old stone axe.
The axe fragment is about the size of a thumbnail and dates back between 46,000 and 49,000 years — around the time people first arrived on the continent, and more than 10,000 years earlier than any previous ground-edge axe discoveries.
“This is the earliest evidence of hafted axes in the world. Nowhere else in the world do you get axes at this date,” said co-author Prof. Sue O’Connor, from the Australian National University.
“In Japan such axes appear about 35,000 years ago. But in most countries in the world they arrive with agriculture after 10,000 years ago.”
Lead author Prof. Peter Hiscock, an archaeologist at the University of Sydney, added: “the axe revealed that the first Australians were technological innovators.”
“Since there are no known axes in Southeast Asia during the Ice Age, this discovery shows us that when humans arrived in Australia they began to experiment with new technologies, inventing ways to exploit the resources they encountered in the new Australian landscape.”
The axe fragment was initially excavated in the early 1990s at Carpenter’s Gap 1, a large rock shelter known to be one of the first sites occupied by modern humans in Windjana Gorge National Park in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
The new study has revealed that it comes from an axe made of basalt that had been shaped and polished by grinding it against a softer rock like sandstone.
This type of axe would have been very useful for a variety of tasks including making spears and chopping down or taking the bark off trees.
“Polished stone axes were crucial tools in hunter-gatherer societies and were once the defining characteristic of the Neolithic phase of human life,” Prof. Hiscock said.
“But when were axes invented? This question has been pursued for decades, since archaeologists discovered that in Australia axes were older than in many other places. Now we have a discovery that appears to answer the question.”
“Evidence suggests the technology was developed in Australia after people arrived around 50,000 years ago,” Prof. O’Connor said.
“We know that they didn’t have axes where they came from. There are no axes in the islands to our north. They arrived in Australia and invented axes.”
According to Prof. Hiscock, the ground-edge axe technology specifically arose as the dispersing humans adapted to their new regional landscapes.
“Although humans spread across Australia, axe technology did not spread with them,” he said.
“Axes were only made in the tropical north, perhaps suggesting two different colonizing groups or that the technology was abandoned as people spread into desert and sub-topical woodlands.”
“These differences between northern Australia, where axes were always used, and southern Australia, where they were not, originated around the time of colonization and persisted until the last few thousand years when axes began to be made in most southern parts of mainland Australia.”