The discovery of the oldest known axe with a handle and ground edge has pushed back the date for the development of this technology by 10,000 years. The find, at the appropriately named Carpenter's Gap in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, indicates that the first inhabitants of the region were technological innovators well ahead of their time.
The first hand axes are hundreds of thousands of years old, possibly predating even the birth of Homo sapiens as a species. Professor Jane Balme of the University of Western Australia told IFLScience that these were flaked, not ground, and therefore far less effective at chopping wood.
In the early 1990s, Professor Sue O'Connor of the Australian National University found an axe that showed signs of being both very ancient and of having a ground edge. It has taken until now for the axe to be examined by the University of Sydney's Professor Peter Hiscock, a leading expert on stone tools, and for the location at which the axe was found to be dated with confidence.
Professor Sue O'Connor and Ph.D. student Tim Maloney examine the earliest example of ground axes. Australian National University
Now, O'Connor, Balme, and Hiscock have announced in the journal Australian Archeology that the axe's point was not only made through grinding, but that it is between 46,000 and 49,000 years old. This makes it not only the oldest ground axe, but the oldest one with a handle (hafted).
“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 a statement. “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.”
Based on more recent examples of similar tools, Balme told IFLScience the haft would have been made of wood split to hold the blade and with resin acting as glue. It was probably used for chopping honey out of tree hollows.
Northern Australia was already known to be among the earliest sites for axe technology, but the discovery demonstrates that grinding was invented not long after the first inhabitants reached the continent, and long before anywhere else in the world.
Surprisingly, although the descendants of the people who made axes such as this spread southwards, they appear to have left the concept behind. According to Balme, it is the last 5,000 or so years that axes with ground blades appeared in southern Australia. Balme says this is just one of many examples of ways in which ideas seem to have flowed across northern Australia, particularly back and forth between the Kimberleys and Arnhem Land, but had little influence on the rest of the continent for tens of thousands of years.
“Australian stone artefacts have often been characterised as being simple,” O'Connor said. This belief has been used to justify discrimination against Australian Aborigines, but O'Connor added, “Clearly that’s not the case when you have these hafted axes earlier in Australia than anywhere else in the world.”
Axe flakes found at Carpenter's Gap, Western Australia. Australian National University.