World’s Oldest Ground-Edge Ax Found In Australia

Archaeologists in western Australia have unearthed fragments of the world’s oldest-known ground-edge ax, dating back to between 46,000 and 49,000 years ago.

AsianScientist (May 17, 2016) – Archaeologists from the Australian National University have unearthed fragments from the edge of the world’s oldest-known ground-edge ax, found in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. An article on the discovery has been published in Australian Archaeology.

Lead archaeologist Professor Sue O’Connor said the hafted ax—an ax with a handle attached—dates back between 46,000 and 49,000 years, around the time when 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,” said O’Connor. “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.”

New studies of the fragment have revealed that it comes from an ax made of basalt that had been shaped and polished by grinding it against a softer rock, like sandstone. This type of ax would have been very useful for a variety of tasks including making spears and chopping down or taking the bark off trees.

The ax fragment was initially excavated in the early 1990s by O’Connor at Carpenter’s Gap 1, a large rock shelter in Windjana Gorge National Park in Kimberley.

O’Connor said this discovery showed early Aboriginal technology was not as simple as has been previously suggested.

“Australian stone artefacts have often been characterized 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 analyzed by Professor 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.

“The question of when axes were invented 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.”

Hiscock said although humans spread across Australia, ax technology did not spread with them. According to him, 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 colonization. This persisted until the last few thousand years, when axes began to be made in most southern parts of mainland Australia.

The article can be found at: Hiscock et al. (2016) World’s Earliest Ground-edge Axe Production Coincides with Human Colonisation of Australia.


Source: Australian National University.
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