Why are there pits on ground stone hatchets? These are wood working tools, but could they have been used for cracking seeds and nuts as well? How to find out? Do experiments! For this month in archaeology, we discuss the recent experimental archaeology paper, led by Dr Nina Kononenko.

By studying the marks on a stone tool, we can see what that tool was used for. In Australia, stone artefacts such as hammerstones and hatchets often have pits on the surface. These pits are produced when these tools are used as anvils for stone-working or opening hard-cased foods such as shell-fish. But could they have been used for plant processing as well?

The recently published paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports by Dr Nina Kononenko, Val Attenbrow, Peter White and Robin Torrence, set up a series of experiments to ask – could these pits be formed from nut-cracking?


  • Macadamia nuts
    Macadamia nuts Image: Pixabay
    © Pixabay
  • A macadamia nut resting on a basalt anvil
    A macadamia nut resting on a basalt anvil (Kononenko Fig.1d 2021:4) Image: Kononenko Fig.1d 2021:4
    © Kononenko Fig.1d 2021:4

What nuts could have been cracked in Australia?

There are many edible endemic nuts and hard seeds in Australia including Quandong nuts (Pardoe et al. 2019), Macrozamia seeds and Macadamia nuts (Asmussen, 2011; Beck et al., 1988; Ferrier and Cosgrove, 2012; Field et al., 2009).


Santalum acuminatum fruit, or  desert quandong, from West Wylong, New South Wales, Australia.

Santalum acuminatum fruit, or desert quandong, from West Wylong, New South Wales, Australia.

Image: John Moss
© Public Domain.

Burrawang seeds, Macrozamia communis near Lake Conjola, Narrawallee Creek Nature Reserve

Burrawang seeds, Macrozamia communis near Lake Conjola, Narrawallee Creek Nature Reserve

Image: Michael Van Ewijk/DPIE uploaded by Freddy Herrera
CC BY-NC

What nuts did they use in this experiment?

In these experiments they used macrozamia and macadamia nuts. Macrozamia seeds have a red-fleshy outer layer. Under this is a hard, woody shell which has to be cracked open to get the soft starchy kernel on the inside. This kernel is highly toxic and must be leached in water for many days to remove the toxin before it can be eaten.

Macadamia nuts have a hard, smooth outer-shell, which can be crushed by resting the nut on an anvil and hitting it with a hammerstone.

What experiments did they do?

The authors conducted a series of experiments with different stones and nuts to test damage marks; specifically, if the marks caused by nut-cracking were different to the marks formed by other activities, such stone knapping. The tools tested were stone tools (anvils and hammers) made from basalt, quartzite and sandstone. In Australia basalt is used to make hatchets and sandstone is used to make grinding stones.


Macrozamia seeds after the bright red fleshing outer layer has been removed. Under the red fleshy layer is a hard, woody shell, pictured here resting between hammer and anvil

Macrozamia seeds after the bright red fleshing outer layer has been removed. Under the red fleshy layer is a hard, woody shell, pictured here resting between hammer and anvil.

Image: Kononenko Fig.1b 2021:4
© Kononenko Fig.1b 2021:4

What were the results?

They found that cracking seeds and nuts produces diagnostic wear traits on stone hammers and anvils. One of the key traits of nut-cracking is the presence of ‘distinctive sub-circular or oval patches with surface alteration in the form of localised, dense, shallow impact marks and cracks’.

The authors found that this diagnostic use-wear is only produced after several hours of nut cracking.


Basalt anvil for cracking Macrozamia seeds and macadamia nuts with arrow where images were taken

Experiments 1 and 8. Basalt anvil for cracking Macrozamia seeds and macadamia nuts with arrow where images were taken: a – the surface before use, b – surface damage after cracking Macrozamia for 150 min, c – surface damage after 540 min cracking seeds/nuts (macadamia for 390 min and Macrozamia for 150 min), d – after 150 min of use, impact marks and few striations indicated by arrow (×10), e – after 540 min of use, surface levelling, fine striations and impact marks indicated by arrow (×10), f – after 540 min of use, surface levelling, rock grain rounding and sheen indicated by arrow (×30)

Image: Kononenko et al. 2021: Fig 2
© Kononenko et al. 2021: Fig 2

What does this mean for Australian archaeology?

To test what this means for Australian stone tools, the authors compared their results with 11 pitted stone artefacts. Kononenko, lead author, highlighted that: ‘Similarities between wear traces produced in the experiments and those preserved on prehistoric stone artefacts made it possible to confirm the re-use of stone hatchets for cracking seeds and nuts’ (Kononenko et al. 2021:2).

It had previously been assumed that ground-edge hatchets were only used for chopping wood. But this study shows that Australian ground-edged stone hatchet heads were used for plant processing and nut-cracking, in addition to wood chopping. Importantly, this shows that many ground-edge hatchets were used for ‘multiple activities and had long and complex use lives’ (Kononenko et al. 2021:2). This shows that the well-know artefact type, the stone hatchet, actually had many more functions.


Dr Amy Way, Scientific Officer, Archaeology, Australian Museum Research Institute; and Conjoint Lecturer, School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Sydney.

Dr Nina Kononenko, Research Associate, Geosciences and Archaeology, Australian Museum Research Institute.


More information:

  • Asmussen, B. 2011. Changing Perspectives in Australian Archaeology, part X. There is likewise a nut…a comparative ethnobotany of Aboriginal processing methods and consumption of Australian Bowenia, Cycas, Lepidozamia and Macrozamia species. Technical Reports of the Australian Museum 23.10: 147-63. DOI: 10.3853/j.1835-4211.23.2011.1575.
  • Attenbrow, V., Kononenko, N. 2019. Microscopic revelations: the forms and multiple uses of ground-edged artefacts of the New South Wales Central Coast, Australia. Technical Reports of the Australian Museum Online 29: 1–100. DOI: 10.3853/j.1835-4211.29.2019.1710.
  • Beck, W., Fullagar, R., White, N. 1988. Archaeology from ethnography: the Aboriginal use of cycad as an example, in: Meehan, B., Jones, R. (Eds), Archaeology with Ethnography, an Australian Perspective. Occ Pap Prehist. 15: 137–147.
  • Ferrier, A., Cosgrove, R. 2012. Aboriginal exploitation of toxic nuts as a late- Holocene subsistence strategy in Australia’s tropical rainforests. In: Haberle, S. G., David, B. (Eds), Peopled Landscapes: Archaeological and Biogeographic Approaches to Landscapes. Terra Australis 34:103–120.
  • Field, J., Cosgrove, R., Fullagar, R., Lance, B. 2009. Starch residues on grinding stones in private collections: a study of morahs from the tropical rainforests of NE Queensland, in: Haslam, M., Robertson, G., Crowther, A., Nugent, S., Kirkwood L. (Eds), Archaeological Science Under a Microscope: Studies in Residue and Ancient DNA Analysis in Honour of Thomas H. Loy. Terra Australis 30: 47–79.
  • Kononenko, N., Attenbrow, V., White, P., Torrence, R. 2021. Cracking seeds and nuts: Replicating use-wear on pitted ground-edged stone hatchets from Southeastern Australia. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 37 (2021): 102994. DOI: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2021.102994.
  • Pardoe, C., Fullagar, R., Hayes, E. 2019. Quandong stones: A specialised Australian nut-cracking tool. PloS one 14.10: e0222680.DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0222680.