A rock flake found in Australia is believed to be from the world’s oldest known axe and likely dates from just after humans arrived in the country around 50,000 years ago, scientists said. Photo: AFP/Australian National University
Melbourne: Australian scientists on Wednesday claimed to have unearthed a fragment of the world’s oldest known ground edge axe, created up to 49,000 years ago, around the time humans first arrived on the continent.
The latest discovery, about the size of a thumbnail, was made by Archaeologists of Australian National University (ANU) in Western Australia’s remote Kimberley region.
ANU’s archeologist Sue O’Connor said the axe dates back between 46,000 and 49,000 years, around the time people first arrived on the continent.
“This is the earliest evidence of hafted axes in the world. Nowhere else in the world do you get axes at this date,” O’Connor from the university’s School of Culture, History and Language, said.
“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.” O’Connor said this discovery showed early Aboriginal technology was not as simple as has been previously suggested. A hafted axe is an axe with a handle attached.
“Australian stone artefacts have often been characterised as being simple. But clearly that’s not the case when you have these hafted axes earlier in Australia than anywhere else in the world,” she said.
O’Connor said evidence suggests the technology was developed in Australia after people arrived around 50,000 years ago.
“We know that they didn’t have axes where they came from. There’s no axes in the islands to our north. They arrived in Australia and innovated axes,” she said.
Once unearthed, the flakes were then analysed by Peter Hiscock from the University of Sydney. “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,” Hiscock said adding ‘The question of when axes were invented has been pursued for decades. He said although humans spread across Australia, axe technology did not spread with them.
“Axes were only made in the tropical north. These differences between northern Australia, where axes were always used and southern Australia, where they were not, originated around the time of colonisation and persisted until the last few thousand years when axes began to be made in most southern parts of mainland Australia,” Hiscock said.
The axe fragment was initially excavated in the early 1990s by Professor O’Connor at Carpenter’s Gap 1, a large rock shelter in Windjana Gorge National Park in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
New studies of the fragment have made it public 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.