Archaeologists Identify World's Oldest Hafted Axe

Australian Archaeology
Australian Archaeology / Australian Archaeology

During a dig in Western Australia in the 1990s, archaeologists uncovered a tiny fragment of basalt stone. It didn't look like much at first glance, but now, more than two decades after its discovery, the fragment has been identified as a piece of the oldest known hafted axe, or axe with a handle, BBC reports.

In a new paper published in Australian Archaeology [PDF], researchers from Australian National University date the rock chip between 44,000 and 49,000 years old. For reference, the handled axe artifact we previously believed to be the oldest ever discovered dates back a measly 10,000 years.

While older hand axes, like this flint axe created up to 700,000 years ago, have been discovered in the past, those tools would have primarily been used for butchering meat and crushing bones. Axes with attached handles didn't start appearing until humans began to farm around 12,000 years ago—at least that's what we thought until now. This newly identified artifact precedes the rise of agriculture by around 30,000 years. (Agriculture in Australia has long been thought to have started much later than that—in the late 18th century, with European colonization—but some scholars now dispute that, arguing that Aborigines cultivated the land.) 

Because the only evidence archaeologists have of the axe is a single flake of smoothed rock, there are still some doubts surrounding its origins. If similar artifacts are discovered in the region they could possibly help experts better understand when exactly they were used and what they were used for.

[h/t BBC]