Australian archaeologists found a fragment of the oldest axe in the world in the Kimberley region in Western Australia. According to their study published in this month’s issue of the journal Australian Archaeology, the thumbnail-sized axe piece dates back 45,000 to 49,000 years ago during the Stone Age period or when humans first arrived in Australia.

The axe fragment is more than ten millennia older than the other axe discovered. It comes from an axe that was shaped from basalt then polished by grinding it on another rock.

“Nowhere else in the world do you get axes at this date. In Japan, such axes appear about 35,000 years ago,” says Sue O’Connor from the Australian National University (ANU). ”But in most countries in the world, they arrive with agriculture after 10,000 years ago.”

oldest axe

World’s oldest axe fragment, seen here under a microscope, is the size of a thumbnail. Credit: Australian Archaeology.

According to Peter Hiscock, a professor at the University of Sydney, the axe proves that early Australians were already innovators in the field of technology. The use of the axe increased as Australians adapted to their new environment.

“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 in the new Australian landscape,” adds Hiscock.

“Although humans spread across Australia, axe technology did not spread with them,” asserts Hiscock. “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.”

The axe fragment was actually dug up in the early 1990s by Professor O’Connor together with other tools, artwork, food scraps and other archaeological finds from Carpenter’s gap, a massive rock shelter believed to be among the first locations inhabited by our ancestors. Further investigations in 2014 led to the identification of the axe fragment.