Archaeologists in Australia have found a fragment of an ax far older than any other ever found, evidence that the continent's first Aboriginal people were considerably more sophisticated with toolmaking than they've been given credit for. "We are rewriting history here," Sydney University archaeologist Peter Hiscock tells the Sydney Morning Herald. "We need to give the ancestors of Aboriginal people credit for being clever, adaptable, and successful." The basalt fragment is estimated to be between 46,000 and 49,000 years old, dating back to just after the first humans set up camp on the continent around 50,000 years ago. The basalt ax is thought to have helped carve other tools, such as spears, and was likely shaped by being ground against a softer stone such as sandstone.
The world's next oldest ax was also found in Australia in 2010 and dates to around 35,000 years old. While Japan is also home to these "hafted" axes (meaning they're on a handle) from around 35,000 years ago, the oldest axes found in Europe, West Asia, and Africa are comparatively young, dating back just 8,500 years, the researchers note in a press release. Australian National University archaeologist Sue O'Connor found this fragment in the 1990s, and while it's only the size of a thumbnail and likely broke off an ax head roughly 2 to 3 inches long, it's "information-rich," Hiscock says. It's still unclear whether people brought the technology with them or developed it in Australia, but researchers are turning to northern Australia, the entry point from Asia, to see if they can find even older axes. (Think that sounds old? Try tools found in Kenya that predate the arrival of modern humans.)