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Acheulean Handaxe

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Oldest Acheulean Handaxe from Kokiselei, Kenya

Oldest Acheulean Handaxe from Kokiselei, Kenya

Credit: P.-J. Texier copyright MPK/WTAP
Definition:

Acheulean handaxes (sometimes spelled Acheulian) are large chipped stone objects which represent the oldest and longest-used formally shaped working tool ever used by human beings, both Neanderthals and our ancestors. Part of the Acheulean tradition tool kit of the Lower Paleolithic (a.k.a. Early Stone Age), handaxes are the first form-shaped tool used by hominins. Handaxes were used well into the Middle Paleolithic (Middle Stone Age), and date between about 1.76 million and 100,000 years ago.

Handaxes are large stone cobbles which have been roughly worked on both sides (called "bifacially worked") into an oval or triangular shape. They are pointed, or at least relatively pointy on one end, and some of those pointy ends are quite tapered. Some are triangular in cross-section, some are flat. In fact, there is a lot of variability within the category. Early handaxes, those made before about 450,000 years ago, are simpler than the later ones, which evidence finer flaking. But archaeologists are still unsure exactly what these tools were used for.

Acheulean Handaxe Distribution

The Acheulean handaxe is named after the St. Acheul archaeological site where they were first identified 150 years ago. Early handaxes, dated about 1.6 million years ago, are from eastern and southern Africa, at sites such as Konso-Gardula in Ethiopia, Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, and Sterkfontein in South Africa.

Early handaxes have been associated with Homo ergaster (H. erectus) in Africa and Europe. The later ones seem to be associated with both H. erectus and early modern H. sapiens. Acheulean handaxes have been recovered from Africa, Europe, India, and (possibly) China.

Differences between Lower and Middle Stone Age Axes

If it is difficult for us to get our minds around the idea that the handaxe remained essentially unchanged for over a million and a half years, that's because they did change. There is evidence that over time, making handaxes became a refined procedure. In particular, early handaxes seem to have been sharpened by tip reduction alone, while later ones appear to have been resharpened along their entire form. Whether this is a reflection of the kind of tool that the handaxe had become, or of the increased stone-working capabilities of the makers, or probably a little of both, is currently unknown.

Oldest Handaxes

The earliest Acheulean handaxe yet found is from the Kokiselie 4 site in the Rift valley of Kenya, dated about 1.76 million years ago, as reported in Nature in September of 2011. The earliest handaxe technology outside of Africa, was identified at two cave sites in Spain, Solana del Zamborino and Estrecho del Quipar, dated about 0.9 million years ago.

Acheulean handaxes and their associated tool forms are not the first tools ever used: that would be Oldowan tradition, and they represent a suite of chopping tools which are cruder and simpler tools, thought to have been used by Homo habilis.

Sources

This article is a part of Guides to Lower Paleolithic and Middle Paleolithic.

Iovita R, and McPherron SP. 2011. The handaxe reloaded: A morphometric reassessment of Acheulian and Middle Paleolithic handaxes. Journal of Human Evolution 61(1):61-74.

Lepre CJ, Roche H, Kent DV, Harmand S, Quinn RL, Brugal J-P, Texier P-J, Lenoble A, and Feibel CS. 2011. An earlier origin for the Acheulian. Nature 477:82-85.

Lycett, SJ and N von Cramon-Taubadel. 2008. Acheulean variability and hominin dispersals: a model-bound approach. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(3):553-562.

Machin, AJ, RT Hosfield, and SJ Mithen 2007 Why are some handaxes symmetrical? Testing the influence of handaxe morphology on butchery effectiveness. Journal of Archaeological Science 34:883-893.

Marshall, GD, CS Gamble, DA Roe, and D Dupplaw. 2002. Acheulian biface database.. ADS, York

McNabb J. 2013. Pole to Pole. Archaeology and Adaptation in the Middle Pleistocene at Opposite Ends of the Acheulean World. Oxford Journal Of Archaeology 32(2):123-146.

Scott GR, and Gibert L. 2009. The oldest hand-axes in Europe. Nature 461(7260):82-85.

Also Known As: hand bolt (rarely), and Acheulean biface (which allows for more variation in the form)
Alternate Spellings: Acheulian handaxe
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