A small stone fragment, no bigger than a fingernail and found in a cave in the Windjana Gorge national park, Australia, is believed to be a flake from the world’s oldest hatchet, claim archaeologists.
The 11-millimeter-long fragment was originally found in a rocky outcrop in Western Australia known as Carpenter’s Gap in the 1990s, but it was only properly examined recently. Although the small flake of basalt rock is just a tiny fragment of a larger hatchet, Peter Hiscock from the University of Sydney says that the piece must have come from a handheld hatchet, as both sides of the rock were polished — something our ancestors didn’t do with their simple hand-axes. The hatchet was believed to once have a handle, and carbon dating of a charcoal fragment found next to the stone chip dates this particular hatchet to between 44,000 to 49,000 years ago.
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What makes the discovery of this hatchet particularly important, according to Sue O’Connor from the Australian National University — the archaeologist who originally unearthed it in the 90s — is that it is the earliest evidence of a handled hatchet in the world. The fact that the hatchet was found in Australia means that the previously held belief that Europe was the epicenter of our ancestors’ technological advancement is wrong.
“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.”
Hiscock adds that this hatchet lends credence to the idea that our ancestors colonized the world because they were technologically innovative and not because they were “endowed with some particular skill they could apply everywhere,” reports the Guardian. They adapted to their surroundings and not the other way around.
“We’re 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.”
The original belief held by scholars in the 19th century was that all technological advancements happened in Europe and that other countries, such as Australia, were primitive cultures prone to using simplistic hand-held tools rather than complex tools like the handled hatchet O’Connor discovered. While some scholars disagree with O’Connor’s assessment of the tiny stone flake, others, like Hiscock, assert that its discovery means that technology like the hatchet was invented in Australia and not Europe.
“This is the place where that sort of technology was invented and it only reached Europe relatively recently.”
According to the Washington Post, the reason that there is a distinct lack of other such hatchets found in and around Australia is because these tools were “long-lived.” Hatchets such as the one found at Carpenter’s Gap were kept for many years and could be resharpened as the need arose. Researchers confirmed under a microscope that the hatchet had a bevelled edge, leading them to confirm that the flake came from a handled hatchet, and not a simple hand-axe. That sort of bevelling takes hours to accomplish and hundreds of strokes against other stone to sand it down, something ancient humans wouldn’t have done if it were just a simple tool.
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To prove their point, O’Connor and her colleagues reconstructed the small flake they discovered by grinding pieces of basalt against sandstone, and it took between 600 and 800 strokes to perfectly mimic the fragment from the hatchet found in Australia.
The fact that the world’s oldest hatchet was found in Australia means that not only do archaeologists have to re-write the history handheld axes but also of ancient technology itself.
[Image via Australian Archaeology]