Roughly the size of a thumbnail and resembling nothing but an old piece of rock, scientists claim this is not just any ordinary stone. Rather, it is part of the oldest axe discovered to date as it was constructed about 49,000 years ago. It was found in Australia which pushes back against the assertion that Europe was the birthplace of technology. It demonstrates that people developed complex tools shortly after they first arrived in Australia.
This particular fragment was excavated back in the early 1990s from a cave located in the Windjana Gorge national park. The park sits in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, but it was only examined recently. Scientists conducted new analysis and dating methods which suggest that the fragment of the cutting edge of an axe was used between 46,000 and 49,000 years ago. This axe would have had a handle as well. Humans are estimated to have arrived in Australia somewhere between 50,000 to 55,000 years ago.
There had been another axe found in Arnhem Land in Australia dated to 35,000 years ago. This latest one even predates the independently invented axes in Japan that dated back about 38,000 years ago. Other species in the human family have used simpler sharpened stone tools dating back millions of years ago. However, it was not until this time period that more complex tools that coupled stone and wood emerged.
According to Peter Hiscock, even though this discovery is only a fragment, it is still significant. He is from the University of Sydney and made the recent discovery. Hiscock stated, “The great thing about it is really distinctive – it has both polished surfaces coming together on the chip. While you don’t have the axe, you actually have a really good record of what the contact edge looks like.”
Despite no handle found, Hiscock is confident that this is not just a simple hand axe (a sharp tool held directly in the hand), because it was polished and contains a heavy material. This would not be more useful or worth the effort if the tool had been built only to be used by a hand.
Sue O’Connor from the Australian National University originally excavated the tool in the 1990s. She said, “This is the earliest evidence of hafted axes [axes with a handle] in the world. 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 10,000 years ago.”
The researchers are pretty sure the axe was invented in Australia. They found no competing evidence of similar tools in the Southeast Asia region which is where the migrants would have come from. Furthermore, Hiscock points out that this discovery supports the notion that humans did colonize the world through the ability to be creative and innovative. Rather, it is not because they were endowed with a particular skill that could be applied anywhere and everywhere.
Hiscock further elaborated by stating that, “We are looking at people who moved through south-east Asia, where they probably used a lot of bamboo, which is sharp and hard and fantastic for tools. But when they get to Australia, there’s no bamboo so they’re inventing new tools to help them adapt to the exploitation of this new landscape. It’s a fascinating inversion of what European scholars thought in the 19th century.”
Scholars have always believed that innovations happened in Europe while random places in Australia were simple and lacking in innovation. But now there is evidence to support that there is a long history of discovery of axes of progressively earlier ages. Australia is where this kind of technology emerged, and it reached Europe somewhat recently.
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