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.
I have done archaeology work just south of there on the Kenya/Ethiopia border. We were finding stone tools almost a million years older, but they were simple scrapers and such, not complex hand axes. And they were mostly from chert and basalt, not high quality obsidian.