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World's oldest ground-edge implement discovered

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November 7, 2010

Two thirds of the world's population now carries a mobile phone but this was state-of-the-art technology just 35,000 years ago. This is the earliest ground-edge implement ever found.

Two thirds of the world's population now carries a mobile phone but this was state-of-the-art technology just 35,000 years ago. This is the earliest ground-edge implement ever found.

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Anthropologist Dr Timothy Taylor argues that humans, as the weakest of the great apes, became the dominant species due to our use of technology. Taylor’s recent book The Artificial Ape, convincingly postulates that we are biologically a product of technology (hear Taylor discuss the book in this excellent RSA podcast).

If Taylor is correct, then a find earlier this year in Northern Australia is of enormous significance. Stone tool-use among our earliest hominid ancestors dates to 3.4 million years ago, but the use of grinding to sharpen stone tool edges such as axes is clearly associated with modern humans, otherwise known as Homo Sapiens. At 35,000 years, this is the oldest ground-edge stone tool in the world predating previous finds in Japan and Northern Australia from 22,000-30,000 years ago.

Evidence for stone tool-use among our earliest hominid ancestors dates to 3.4 million years ago, however, the first use of grinding to sharpen stone tool edges such as axes is clearly associated with modern humans, otherwise known as Homo sapiens sapiens.

The oldest ground-edge stone tool in the world has been discovered in northern Australia by a Monash University researcher and a team of international experts.

Monash University archaeologist and member of the team who made the discovery, Dr Bruno David said while there have been reports of much older axes being found in New Guinea, the implements were not ground.

"This suggests that axe technology evolved into the later use of grinding for the sharper, more symmetrical and maintainable edges this generates," said Dr. David.

"The ground-axe fragment is dated to 35,000 years ago, which pre-dates the oldest examples of ground-edge implements dated to 22,000-30,000 years ago from Japan and Northern Australia."

Archaeological excavations undertaken in May 2010 at Nawarla Gabarnmang in northern Australia uncovered the artefact.

Nawarla Gabarnmang is a large rock-shelter in Jawoyn Aboriginal country in southwestern Arnhem Land. The discovery of the rock-shelter was made by Ray Whear and Chris Morgan from the Jawoyn Association while flying by helicopter on June 15, 2006.

The discovery of the axe was made by a team of researchers including Jean-Michel Geneste from the Centre National de Prehistoire of the Ministry of Culture in France, Hugues Plisson from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique at the University of Bordeaux in France, Christopher Clarkson from the University of Queensland, Jean-Jacques Delannoy from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique at the University de Savoie in France and Fiona Petchey from the University of Waikato.

"Axes fulfilled a unique position within the Aboriginal toolkit as long use-life chopping tools, were labor intensive to manufacture and highly valued," said Dr. David.

"During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, axes were understood by local Aboriginal communities to carry with them the ancestral forces which characterized the particular quarry from which they came,"

"Their trade across the landscape moved not just the tool itself, but more importantly the symbolic and ancestral forces of their point of origin. The Nawarla Gabarnmang axe, found some 40km from its source, is evidence of 35,000 years of the movement of tools, technologies and ideas across the northern Australian landscape,"

"This new evidence for the earliest securely dated ground-edge implement in the world indicates that Australia was an important locale of technological innovation 35,000 years ago."

"This discovery will assist researchers in Australia and around the world as we examine the evolution of human behavior and the earliest technological advancements," said Dr. David.

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About the Author
Mike Hanlon Mike grew up thinking he would become a mathematician, accidentally started motorcycle racing, got a job writing road tests for a motorcycle magazine while at university, and became a writer. As a travelling photojournalist during his early career, his work was published in a dozen languages across 20+ countries. He went on to edit or manage over 50 print publications, with target audiences ranging from pensioners to plumbers, many different sports, many car and motorcycle magazines, with many more in the fields of communication - narrow subject magazines on topics such as advertising, marketing, visual communications, design, presentation and direct marketing. Then came the internet and Mike managed internet projects for Australia's largest multimedia company, Telstra.com.au (Australia's largest Telco), Seek.com.au (Australia's largest employment site), top100.com.au, hitwise.com, and a dozen other internet start-ups before founding Gizmag in 2002. Now he writes and thinks. All articles by Mike Hanlon
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