• A still from University of Sydney video highlighting (in green) the piece found in a reconstructed full axe. (University of Sydney)Source: University of Sydney
A small fragment of an ancient axe found in Western Australia has been dated as the oldest in the world, revealing how Aboriginal ancestors adapted to the new continent.
Nicola McCaskill

11 May 2016 - 6:00 AM  UPDATED 11 May 2016 - 12:04 PM

The first Australians were technological innovators, inventing new tools to colonise the landscape as they adapted to the environment.

A piece of an ancient axe, discovered by Aussie archaeologists in the Kimberley region in Western Australia, reveals the first people to arrive on this continent – Aboriginal ancestors – were also pioneers of early technology.

The artefact has been dated to be between 45,000 and 49,000 years old, making it the oldest evidence of such tools used anywhere in the world by more than ten thousand years. An analysis of the fragment is published today in Australian Archaeology.

Lead author Professor Peter Hiscock from the University of Sydney says the age of the axe matches up with the oldest evidence of humans in Australia.

“The thing that excites me about this is that it comes from the very moment that people set foot in Australia. And so it’s evidence of the nature of the creativity, the technological innovation,” he says.

“The axe was almost certainly used very shortly after modern humans first arrived here, by the first colonisers, and we know that they were the ancestors of Aboriginal people."

A hard grind of an axe

The thumbnail-sized artefact was first excavated by archaeologist Professor Sue O’Connor of ANU in the early 1990s, but not examined further. It wasn’t until 2014 that O’Connor noticed the polishing on the fragment, and ancient technology specialist Professor Hiscock was called in.

“It was instantly obvious to me,” Hiscock says. “The axe edge [is] preserved on this piece, and that’s not something that can occur naturally.”

“We did these experiments to show you had to grind it about 800 times on a piece of sandstone to get it that smooth,” he adds. “All that evidence comes together to show that it’s identical to chips that have come off ground edge axes in the historic period.”

As rock can’t be dated through radiocarbon analysis, the team dated a piece of bone that had been buried at the same time and at the same level as the axe fragment. This gives a measure of the age of the fragment by association.

Multipurpose tools

The discovery adds to our understanding of how the ancestors of Indigenous Australians were able to colonise their new landscape.

Ancient axes uncovered elsewhere – such as Europe and the Americas – are usually associated with agriculture, and used for forest clearance. But that’s not the case for these especially early tools, says Hiscock.

“They’re really good multipurpose tools. You can cut a bit of wood with them, you can use them to break open nuts and food, you can use them for protection against other humans, you can hit goannas with them,” he says. “You therefore only need to carry around one tool. And that’s really handy when you’re exploring a landscape for the first time.”

“The reason that people were successful in moving out of Africa and reaching Australia, and colonising Australia, is about their level of innovation and creativity. So what we’ve got is a material record of that level of innovation that’s present in the earliest colonisers.”

Ancestry stories
Prehistoric Europe revealed in a new DNA study
A new genetic analysis shows how dynamic prehistoric Europe was, with human populations constantly changing dominance.
DNA Nation: Meet the famous Australians journeying to uncover their true identities
Ian Thorpe, Julia Zemiro and Ernie Dingo are three high-profile Australians from very different backgrounds who set off on this intrepid journey into their genetic history with the help of high profile human geneticist and series consultant Dr John Mitchell.
This app tells Aboriginal ancestry stories
An idea inspired by the late discovery of her Aboriginal ancestry, lands Mikaela Jade a spot at the PM's Reception for Indigenous Innovators and Entrepreneurs.