An unknown species of people who lived on Earth more than 1.2 million years ago mass-produced obsidian axes. This astonishing discovery was made by a team of archaeologists who excavated at Melka Kuntura in Ethiopia. In their article published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, the researchers report that they found obsidian axes in a layer of sediment during excavations at the Melka Kuntur site. Of the 578 ancient tools found, three were made of obsidian. The dating of the layers in which these ancient tools were found is estimated to be about 1.2 million years ago.
Obsidian is a volcanic glass that is formed when magma is squeezed out of the earth’s crust and cools very quickly. It is known for its ability to make the sharpest blades known to man. Coal-black volcanic glass is also extremely fragile and dangerous to work with, and humans did not master it until the second half of the Stone Age, as previously thought. However, the discovery of an obsidian axe workshop, which is 1.2 million years old, indicates that people used this material to make tools much earlier than assumed.
The researchers also note that the morphological standardization of the axes is striking. Although they do not know which species of people made the tools, they say that whoever made them diligently applied “secondary processing” and was highly “focused on the final appearance and functionality of the artifacts.”
Hand axe making was an important skill for people in the Stone Age. Hand axes were created by shaving stone to create a sharp edge. During use, they were held in the hand and not attached to anything. In later eras obsidian, a type of volcanic glass, replaced flint as the preferred material. Even in modern times, obsidian is considered a difficult stone to work because of its abrasive texture.
The Stone Age lasted from about 2.6 million years ago until the onset of the Bronze Age around 3,300 B.C. Within this period historians usually distinguish three periods: Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic. According to previous studies, axe-making workshops emerged in Europe in the Middle Pleistocene, about 774,000 to 129,000 years ago.
As toolmaking became an increasingly refined skill, workshops emerged to support this process. These workshops employed skilled craftsmen who produced enough tools for the local community. Among the tools produced was the hand axe, a versatile tool that could be used for chopping or as a weapon.
In their article, the researchers note that the obsidian axe workshop at Melka Kuntur is the only known early Pleistocene hand axe factory and a remarkably early example of obsidian processing.
“Sites described as ‘axe-making workshops’ are only recorded in the second half of the Middle Pleistocene and so far only in Europe. Generally speaking, obsidian was only widely used from the Middle Stone Age onward,” the researchers write.
I wonder how humans learned to create such sharp blades out of obsidian? One of the scientists, George Harrison, says that it may have come from observing nature.
“People may have noticed that when lava cools, volcanic glass forms. They could have used it to make tools and found that they were very sharp,” he says.
Melk Kuntura’s research provides a unique opportunity to study the technology of hand axe making in the early stages of human development. This discovery allows scientists to better understand how people used the materials available to them to create tools and how they developed their skills over many millennia.