In January 2023, a team of researchers at the Melka Kunture archaeological site in Ethiopia reported the unearthing of an obsidian handaxe workshop that dates back 1.2 million years, found within a layer of sediment. According to the researchers, this is the only known handaxe factory from the Early Pleistocene and an astonishingly early example of shaping obsidian.
In their paper published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, researchers mention they found a handaxe buried in a layer of sediment while digging at the Melka Kunture site. Out of 578 ancient tools found, three were made of obsidian. Dating of the material around the axes was estimated to be approximately 1.2 million years ago.
“[Archaeological] sites described as ‘knapping workshops’ are only recorded in the second half of the Middle Pleistocene and only in Europe so far. Generally speaking, obsidian is extensively used only from the Middle Stone Age onwards,” the researchers wrote.
Obsidian is a volcanic glass formed when magma is extruded from the earth’s crust and cools very rapidly, with little moisture content or crystalline inclusions. It is renowned for its ability to produce the sharpest blades known to man and is considered one of the most impressive materials ever discovered. The jet-black volcanic glass is also extremely delicate and dangerous to work with and was not mastered by humans until the latter part of the Stone Age, as it was speculated before.
The Stone Age spanned from around 2.6 million years ago until the onset of the Bronze Age around 3,300 BCE. Within this timeframe, historians typically distinguish between three periods: Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic. According to prior research, knapping workshops emerged in Europe during the Middle Pleistocene, roughly 774,000 to 129,000 years ago.
As tool-making became a more refined skill, workshops emerged to support the process. Skilled individuals collaborated in these workshops to produce a sufficient quantity of tools for the local community. Among the tools produced was the handaxe, a versatile tool that could be used for chopping or as a weapon.
Handaxes were created by chipping a stone to create a sharp edge. They were held in the hand when in use and were not attached to anything. In later eras, obsidian, a form of volcanic glass, replaced flint as the preferred material. Even in modern times, obsidian is considered a difficult stone to work with due to its abrasive texture. Researchers have discovered evidence of a workshop for knapping obsidian handaxes that was found much earlier than any other workshop ever discovered.
Describing the axes, the researchers repeatedly claim that “the morphological standardization is remarkable,” and while they do not know which species of human crafted the tools, they say that whoever created them diligently applied “secondary retouches” and was highly “focused on the final regularization of the artifacts.”
Obsidian is a fragile rock that must be knapped with far more dexterity than flint or basalt; therefore, achieving such homogeneity would have needed highly honed skills and considerable dexterity. “Accordingly, manufacturers had to accurately evaluate the strength of the blow to avoid producing flakes of little use, or just to avoid smashing the core,” explain the researchers.
The study states: “Following the deposition of an accumulation of obsidian cobbles by a meandering river, hominins began to exploit these in new ways, producing large tools with sharp cutting edges. We show through statistical analysis that this was a focused activity, that very standardized hand axes were produced and that this was a stone-tool workshop.”
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It is believed that the first techniques for shaping obsidian evolved during the Upper Paleolithic, and even modern knappers wear protective gloves when dealing with razor-sharp material. Nonetheless, when discussing tools from more than a million years ago, the authors of the study state that “the standardized obsidian handaxes provide ample evidence of the repetitive use of fully mastered skills.”
Obsidian was highly valued by the ancient Mesoamerican societies, who traded it extensively throughout the region. They used obsidian to fashion various items, including tools, weapons, mirrors (when polished), and decorative inlays for objects such as jewelry and ritual masks.
Although the raw material was not rare, Mesoamerican cultures from the Olmecs to the Aztecs highly valued worked pieces of obsidian, making it one of the earliest and most frequently traded goods. Its sharp cutting edge, which can be achieved by carefully chipping the material, was particularly prized and was as sharp as modern razor blades.
Raw obsidian was frequently shaped into a cone-like structure with multiple facets, allowing for the easy separation of numerous blades or shards. While obsidian was an unparalleled cutting tool, it was prone to shattering. During the peak of Teotihuacan in central Mexico between 375 and 500 CE, obsidian blades were crafted and utilized for various weapons and tools. (Source)
Historian D. M. Carballo writes, “Teotihuacan’s soldiers were armed with obsidian-tipped darts, short spears thrown with an atlatl or spear-thrower, obsidian knives, and wooden clubs. Within the city some obsidian workshops were located in apartment compounds where primarily utilitarian tools were fabricated, whereas at least one workshop was located near to the Moon Pyramid and specialized in the production of weapons (dart points and knives) as well as ceremonial items of the type that were deposited as consecratory offerings and exported as far away as certain Maya cities. Domestic workshops appear to have been organized as independent commerce undertaken by extended families, but the workshop of the Moon Pyramid precinct would have been overseen by state functionaries, and the finished weapons may have been stored in state armories.”
For such an ancient group of humans, the discovery of such abilities represents a surprise cognitive leap of immense proportions that they supposedly developed 1.2 million years ago. According to the recent study, the modification of existing flint knapping procedures to produce more difficult obsidian tools exemplifies “convergent thinking,” which is connected with innovative problem-solving.
According to the researchers, the ancient axe makers creatively solved technological obstacles such as effectively detaching and shaping massive flakes of particularly brittle and cutting volcanic glass through convergent thinking.