World’s oldest axe fragment unearthed in Western Australia

5 Posted by - 11 May 2016 - Events

New studies on a piece of the oldest axe ever discovered have highlighted the early technological innovations achieved by the first Australians.

Dating back some 45,000 to 49,000 years ago, this early axe fragment was discovered in Carpenter’s Gap, a rock shelter in the Kimberley region.

Carpenter's Gap dig site. Image courtesy Australian Archaeology.

Carpenter’s Gap dig site. Image courtesy Australian Archaeology.

Roughly the size of a thumbnail, the axe remnant is some ten millennia older than other ground-edge axe examples discovered. It dates from soon after humans first arrived on the Australian continent.

The axe fragment was initially excavated in the 1990s by lead archaeologist Professor Sue O’Connor along with food scraps, tools, artwork and other artefacts.

Professor 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 are no axes in the islands to our north. They arrived in Australia and innovated axes,” Professor O’Connor said.

“Nowhere else in the world do you get axes at this date. 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.”

Carpenter's Gap site map. Courtesy Australian Archaeology.

Carpenter’s Gap site map. Courtesy Australian Archaeology.

In 2014, during further research on the objects uncovered at Carpenter’s Gap, an archaeological team led by University of Sydney Professor Peter Hiscock discovered a small fragment of a polished axe from one of the oldest levels of the site.

New studies have revealed that this fragment came from a basalt axe that had then been polished and smoothened through grinding against another rock. It’s believed that the fragment came from the polished edge when the axe was later re-sharpened.

Ground surface of axe fragment. Image courtesy University of Sydney.

Ground surface of axe fragment. Image courtesy University of Sydney.

“Polished stone axes were crucial tools in hunter-gatherer societies and were once the defining characteristic of the Neolithic phase of human life,” said Professor Hiscock.

“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.”

Professor Hiscock, whose new analysis of the fragment is published in the Australian Archaeology journal, says that the axe points to the technological adaptations of the first Australians.

“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,” he said.

The world's oldest axe fragment, seen here under a microscope, is the size of a thumbnail. Courtesy Australian Archaeology.

The world’s oldest axe fragment, seen here under a microscope, is the size of a thumbnail. Courtesy Australian Archaeology.

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