First Use of Diamond

Images: (click to enlarge)
Diamond-polished Corundum Axe
Interview: NPR's All Things Considered (Mar 2005)
Interview: CBC's Quirks & Quarks [Canada] (Mar 2005)

It has been long thought that man first used diamond in India, around the time of Christ, based on the record of documents from India in the latter half of the first millennium, BC. There certainly did not seem to be any evidence from earlier historical periods, let alone prehistoric times. However, we have uncovered evidence that the neolithic Chinese were using diamonds to polish a special group of ceremonial stone burial axes as early as 2500 BC, placing the earliest known use of diamond two thousand years before the mineral is known to have been used elsewhere. This particular group of stone axes are made predominantly of the mineral corundum, more commonly known in its gem forms of ruby and sapphire. Unpolished, rougher versions of similar axes made from the same stone appear as early as 4000 BC, pushing back the first known use of the mineral corundum to that time, millennia earlier than what had been thought previously. Both of these minerals are substantially harder than the mineral nephrite, the principal component of ancient Chinese jades. Our work may therefore shed light on how large numbers of highly-polished jade burial artifacts were made, an enduring mystery of the material culture of the Chinese neolithic.

Press: 
“Earliest use of diamonds by Chinese found,” China Daily  (Feb 2005)
“The high tech of prehistory,” The Christian Science Monitor  (Mar 2005)
“Il y a 6 000 ans, les Chinois polissaient au diamant,” Le Figaro [France]  (May 2005)
“Diamant und Korund in Chinas Jungsteinzeit,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung [Switzerland]  (Jun 2005)
“Steinzeitliche Diamantschleifer,” Spektrum der Wissenschaft [Germany]  (Apr 2005)
“In the Buff: Stone Age tools may have derived luster from diamond,” Science News  (Feb 2005)
“Premiers outils durs,” La Recherche [France]  (Apr 2005)
“Stone-Age tools,” The Tribune [Chandigarh, India]  (Feb 2005)
“Ancient diamond secret bared,” Shanghai Daily [China]  (Feb 2005)
“In China, gems used as tools millennia earlier than thought,” Harvard Gazette  (Feb 2005)
“Premiers diamantaires,” Le Point [France]  (Jun 2005)

Peter J. Lu  |  Harvard University  |  Cambridge, MA 02138 USA |  plu_at_fas.harvard.edu