Australian National University archaeologists found the ax fragments
in the early 1990s in Western Australia. At the time, carbon dating aged the ax incorrectly but using updated technology, scientists have now determined it's between 44,000 and 49,000 years old.
"The question of when axes were invented has been pursued for decades. Since archaeologists discovered that in Australia axes were older than in many other places, now we have a discovery that appears to answer the question," said Peter Hiscock, a professor at the University of Sydney who analyzed the fragments.
Sue O'Connor, the lead archaeologist for the project, discovered the pieces shortly after getting her PhD. She originally thought they were simply flakes of basalt, a type of dark-colored igneous rock.
Five years ago, she and another professor started a project to reevaluate some previous discoveries. During this process, a graduate student realized how significant the flakes could be. O'Connor sent them to Hiscock for further analysis.
The scientists believe early Australians first made axes when they landed on the continent after migrating from Southeast Asia. The tool would've helped them adapt to a different climate.
"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," Hiscock said.
O'Connor said that axes were not seen in most parts of the world until after the arrival of agriculture about 10,000 years ago.
"Australian stone artifacts have often been characterized as being simple. But clearly that's not the case when you have these hafted axes (axes with handles attached) earlier in Australia than anywhere else in the world," O'Connor said.
The ax was shaped by grinding it against a softer rock such as sandstone. This process left marks on the pieces that helped scientists to determine that the flakes were part of something bigger.
Axes like this one were used for making spears, chopping down trees and removing their bark.