Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

World’s Oldest Axe Fragment Found in the Outback

A piece of the world’s oldest axe has been recovered in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia. The axe fragment is about the size of a thumbnail and dates to the Stone Age 45–49,000 years ago – around the time humans arrived on the continent, and more than 10,000 years earlier than any previous ground-edge axe discoveries.

“Since there are no known axes in South-East 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,” said Prof Peter Hiscock of The University of Sydney.

The axe fragment was initially excavated in the early 1990s by Prof Sue O’Connor of the Australian National University among a sequence of food scraps, tools, artwork and other artifacts from Carpenter’s Gap, a large rock shelter that was one of the first sites occupied by modern humans. “Nowhere else in the world do you get axes at this date,” O’Connor said. “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, Hiscock’s team recovered a small fragment of a polished axe from the oldest levels of the site. New studies of the fragment have revealed that it comes from an axe that had been shaped from basalt and then polished by grinding it on another rock until it was very smooth. The team believes the axe was most likely carried away to be used elsewhere, leaving the fragment behind.

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

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

Hiscock said the ground-edge axe technology specifically arose as the dispersing humans adapted to their new regional landscapes. “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,” he said.

“These differences between northern Australia, where axes were always used, and southern Australia, where they were not, originated around the time of colonisation and persisted until the last few thousand years when axes began to be made in most southern parts of mainland Australia.”

The team’s latest discoveries have been published in Australian Archaeology.