The world’s oldest stone axe was made in Australia almost 50,000 years ago

Carpenter’s Gap where the fragment was found. Image: Australian Archaeology.

A piece from the world’s oldest known stone axe has been found in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

The fragment of polished basalt is about the size of a thumbnail and dates back to the Stone Age, 45,000 to 49,000 years ago, about the same time humans arrived in Australia.

The artifact is more than 10,000 years older than any previous finds and shows that the technology of first Australians was not as simple as previously suggested.

This discovery is the earliest known example of a hafted axe — an axe head with a handle attached — which would have been used for a variety of tasks including making spears and chopping down trees or peeling off bark.

“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,” says Peter Hiscock of the University of Sydney.

The finding is described in the journal Australian Archaeology.

Both sides of the fragment under a microscope. Image: Australian Archaeology

The axe fragment was among food scraps, tools, artwork and other artifacts from Carpenter’s Gap at Windjana Gorge National Park, known to be one of the first sites occupied by modern humans.

“Nowhere else in the world do you get axes at this date,” says Professor Sue O’Connor from the Australian National University (ANU) who found the items in the early 1990s.

“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.”

In 2014, a small fragment of a polished axe was revealed when further work was done on the objects dug from the site.

And the latest studies of the fragment reveal it came from an axe shaped from basalt then polished by grinding it against another rock until smooth.

The fragment came from the polished edge when it was later re-sharpened. The team believes the axe was most likely carried away to be used elsewhere, leaving the fragment behind.

Archaeologists have long pondered the question of when axes were invented.

This latest discovery shows that Australia axes were older than those found elsewhere in the world.

Researchers Tim Maloney and Sue O’Connor with axe examples. Image: Australian Archaelogy

Professor O’Connor says the 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,” she says.

“There are no axes in the islands to our north. They arrived in Australia and innovated axes.”

Although humans spread across Australia, axe technology did not spread with them.

Axes were only made in the tropical north, perhaps suggesting two different colonising groups or that the technology was abandoned as people spread into desert and sub-topical woodlands.

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