Kimberley axe find stuns ANU archaeologists
Fragments from the world’s oldest-known ground-edge axe found in WA’s Kimberley show early indigenous Australians were technological innovators, say archaeologists.
The axe fragment was found at Carpenter’s Gap, one of the oldest known habitation sites in Australia, and has been dated at between 44,000 and 49,000 years old.
In a report in the Australian Archaeology journal, a team from the Australian National University said the find showed that early indigenous Australians were using axes 10 millennia earlier than previously thought.
Team leader Professor Sue O’Connor said it is the earliest evidence of hafted axes in the world. In Japan the axes did not appear until 35,000 years ago and in most countries they arrived with agriculture about 10,000 years ago.
The discovery shows “that the first Australians were technological innovators who developed grinding and abrading as techniques with which to shape a range of new implements including hafted ground-edge axes,” the team reported in Australian Archaeology.
A hafted axe is an axe with a handle attached.
Studies of the axe fragment have revealed it came from an axe made of basalt that had been shaped and polished by grinding it against a softer rock like sandstone.
The axe would have been useful for making spears and chopping down or taking bark off trees.
Professor O’Connor said evidence suggests that the technology was developed in Australia after people arrived about 50,000 years ago.
“We know that they didn’t have axes where they came from,” she said. “There’s no axes in the islands to our north. They arrived in Australia and innovated axes.”
Professor Peter Hiscock, from the University of Sydney, analysed the axe flakes.
“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,” he 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.”
The axe fragment was initially excavated in the early 90s by Professor O’Connor at Carpenter’s Gap 1, a big rock shelter in Windjana Gorge National Park. But new studies have only just revealed its full significance.