World's Oldest Hatchet Found in Australia

This chip of stone comes from the world's oldest ax, which may be 49,000 years old. (The back and front sides of the chip are visible in this image.) Australian Archaeology

Researchers have found the world's oldest hatchet fragment in Australia and have determined it is between 44,000 and 49,000 years old.

It provides evidence that people were creating innovative tools outside of Africa earlier than previously thought, the authors wrote in a study describing the finding, published May 9 in the journal Australian Archaeology.

The fragment was originally unearthed more than 20 years ago in the Kimberley region of Western Australia but was only recently scientifically examined. The piece of rock has two polished surfaces with a beveled edge that would have required sanding for about five hours, accomplished with hundreds of strokes, the authors told the Washington Post.

The ax predates similar findings, such as a 35,000-year-old specimen found in Australia's Northern Territory and one in Japan dated to about 38,000 years ago.

"This is the earliest evidence of hafted axes [axes with a handle] in the world," Sue O'Connor, with the Australian National University, who originally excavated the tool in the 1990s, told The Guardian. "Nowhere else in the world do you get axes at this date."

The find inverts a previously held belief that innovation largely occurred in Africa and Europe and spread from there. Ancestors of ancient Australian Aborigines, who made it to Australia around 55,000 years ago, didn't leave records of axes in the Pacific islands from which they came, suggesting they innovated the tool once they arrived.