Forged in magma and capable of producing the sharpest blades on Earth, obsidian is without a doubt one of the most badass materials ever imagined. 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… or so we thought.
Reporting on the latest findings from the Melka Kunture archaeological site in Ethiopia, a team of researchers has described the discovery of an obsidian handaxe workshop within a layer of sediment dated to 1.2 million years ago. This represents a staggeringly early example of obsidian shaping, and, according to the study authors, is the only handaxe factory ever dated to the Early Pleistocene.
“[Archaeological] sites described as ‘knapping workshops’ are only recorded in the second half of the Middle Pleistocene and only in Europe so far,” write the researchers. Located predominantly in France and the UK, the most notable Stone Age axe workshops were all associated with the creation of flint blades.
“Generally speaking, obsidian is extensively used only from the Middle Stone Age onwards,” write the study authors.
However, during the course of their excavations, the team came across an ancient layer of sediment containing a cache of 578 stone tools, all but three of which were sculpted from obsidian. “We show through statistical analysis that this was a focused activity, that very standardized handaxes were produced and that this was a stone-tool workshop,” they write.
Describing the axes, the researchers repeatedly marvel that “the morphological standardization is remarkable,” and while they don’t 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.”link
link to study: A surge in obsidian exploitation more than 1.2 million years ago at Simbiro III (Melka Kunture, Upper Awash, Ethiopia)