A fragment of the world's oldest known stone axe has been unearthed by a group of archeologists in West Australia's Kimberley region.
Believed to be about 10,000 years old, the polished basalt fragment reveals the cutting-edge technology used by the first Australians, indicating that the tools these prehistoric ancestors used were not as simple as believed.
Although the piece is about the size of a thumbnail, the basalt fragment offers the earliest evidence of an axe with a handle or a haft axe during the Stone Age, dating to about 45,000 to 49,000 years ago.
The discovery could also answer the unending question of where axes originated.
"Now we have a discovery that appears to answer the question," says Peter Hiscock of University of Sydney.
What The Discovery Says About Early Humans
Sue O'Connor, an archeologist from the Australian National University, says nowhere in the world could we get an axe from as close to the Stone Age as this one.
Such kinds of axes had appeared in Japan 35,000 years ago, she says, but in most parts of the world, the haft axe arrived with agriculture 10,000 years ago.
What's more, the early humans who arrived in Australia did not have axes where they came from. Hiscock says there haven't been any axes used in Southeast Asia during the Ice Age.
The finding then suggests that early Australian settlers already began to invent new technologies.
Hiscock, who analyzed the fragment after it was discovered in the Windjana George National Park, says these early humans invented ways to take advantage of the landscape in Australia.
While parts of the haft axe have been uncovered by researchers during the early 1990s, the new study sheds more light on the detail of the axe.
Aside from being made of basalt, the axe was shaped and polished by grinding it on rocks such as sandstone.
Researchers say the haft axe would have been used for different tasks such as chopping down trees, making spears, and peeling off bark. In spite of the tool's utility, axes appeared to have failed to spread across Australia during the Stone Age.
Hiscock says the axes were only made in Northern Australia. The region's differences with Southern Australia, where the axes were supposedly not used, began around the time of colonization and remained until the last few centuries when axes started to be made in the south.
The details of the study will be published in the journal Australian Archaeology.