Scientists Identify World’s Oldest Ax

WORLD

A fragment of the world’s oldest known ground-edge ax has been found in the remote Kimberley region of northern Australia. (ABC, Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Watch our video explaining how toolmaking is part of what makes us human.

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Discussion Ideas

This is the basalt flake identified as coming from the world’s oldest ground-edge ax. The flake is actually quite small: 0.16 grams (0.009 ounce) in weight, 10.9 millimeters (.43 inch) long, 5.17 millimeters (.204 inch) wide, and 1.4 millimeters (.056 inch) thick. Photograph from “World’s earliest ground-edge axe production coincides with human colonisation of Australia.” Peter Hiscock, Sue O’Connor, Jane Balme, Tim Maloney. Australian Archaeology Vol. 82, Iss. 1, 2016

This is the basalt flake identified as coming from the world’s oldest ground-edge ax. The flake is actually quite small: 0.16 grams (0.009 ounce) in weight, 10.9 millimeters (.43 inch) long, 5.17 millimeters (.204 inch) wide, and 1.4 millimeters (.056 inch) thick.
Photograph from “World’s earliest ground-edge axe production coincides with human colonisation of Australia.” Peter Hiscock, Sue O’Connor, Jane Balme, Tim Maloney. Australian Archaeology Vol. 82, Iss. 1, 2016. Free access.

  • Researchers recently identified a stone flake from what they think is the world’s oldest ground-edge ax. What is a ground-edge ax?
    • Ground-edge tools are made from hard, durable stone such as basalt. They are shaped by blows from a large, blunt hammer stone, and then their edges are refined by grinding them against coarse, gritty rock such as sandstone.

 

The 45,000-year-old fragment probably came from an ax similar to these, from the Australian National University. Photograph courtesy Australian National University

The 45,000-year-old fragment probably came from an ax similar to these.
Photograph courtesy Australian National University

  • Archaeologists think the flake found in Australia came from a hafted ax. What is a hafted ax?
    • Axes have two parts: The head and the haft, or handle. A hafted tool simply means it has a handle.

 

 

  • How do scientists know how old the ax fragment from the Kimberley is?

 

The flake was discovered in the same sediment layer, identified by dotted lines, as a deposit of gravel and charcoal. Illustration from “World’s earliest ground-edge axe production coincides with human colonisation of Australia.” Peter Hiscock, Sue O’Connor, Jane Balme, Tim Maloney. Australian Archaeology Vol. 82, Iss. 1, 2016

The flake was discovered in the same sediment layer, identified by dotted lines, as a deposit of gravel and charcoal.
Illustration from “World’s earliest ground-edge axe production coincides with human colonisation of Australia.” Peter Hiscock, Sue O’Connor, Jane Balme, Tim Maloney. Australian Archaeology Vol. 82, Iss. 1, 2016. Free access.

  • But wait. The stone itself is not an organism and doesn’t have any carbon. (Basalt is mostly made up of silicates). How could archaeologists carbon-date something with no carbon?
    • Well, they didn’t. They used stratigraphy, the study of rock layers and how to date them. Crucially, the flake was discovered in the same sediment layer as a deposit of charcoal.
      • Charcoal is a substance created by the burning of wood or other organic materials in the absence of oxygen. Wood is the product of an organism (a plant), and charcoal is made almost entirely of carbon. Charcoal is great for dating items at Stone Age sites like the one in the Kimberley. The charcoal associated with the Kimberley ax flake was dated to between 48,875 and 43,941 years ago.

 

 

  • How do you think ancient Australians used their ax?
    • Hafted axes were some of the most sophisticated, powerful tools of the Stone Age. They could be wielded with great control for cutting or chopping trees, shrubs, or hard-shelled fruits; digging holes; slaughtering meat; or even breaking other, softer rocks. They could also, of course, be used as weapons.

 

 

TEACHERS TOOLKIT

ABC: World’s oldest known ground-edge stone axe fragments found in Western Australia

Nat Geo: What Makes Us Human? video

The Genographic Project: Migration to Australia

(extra credit!) Australian Archaeology: World’s earliest ground-edge axe production coincides with human colonisation of Australia

2 responses to “Scientists Identify World’s Oldest Ax

  1. Pingback: Diamonds Are in the Pink | Nat Geo Education Blog·

  2. Pingback: Scientists Identify World’s Oldest Ax — Nat Geo Education Blog – Welcome to the World of Ekasringa Avatar!·

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