Acheulean Handaxe: Definition and History

Humanity's First Formally-Shaped Tool Was Not an Axe

Oldest Acheulean Handaxe from Kokiselei, Kenya
Oldest Acheulean Handaxe from Kokiselei, Kenya. Credit: P.-J. Texier copyright MPK/WTAP

Acheulean handaxes are large, chipped stone objects which represent the oldest, most common, and longest-used formally-shaped working tool ever made by human beings. Acheulean handaxes are sometimes spelled Acheulian: researchers commonly referred to them as Acheulean bifaces, because the tools were not used as axes, at least not most of the time.

Handaxes were first made by our ancient ancestors, members of the hominin family about 1.76 million years ago, as part of the Acheulean tradition toolkit of the Lower Paleolithic (a.k.a. Early Stone Age), and they were used well into the beginning of the Middle Paleolithic (Middle Stone Age) period, about 300,000–200,000.

What Makes a Stone Tool a Handaxe?

Handaxes are large stone cobbles which have been roughly worked on both sides—what is known as "bifacially worked"--into a wide variety of shapes. Shapes seen in handaxes are lanceolate (narrow and thin like a laurel leaf), ovate (flatly oval), orbiculate (close to circular), or something in between. Some are pointed, or at least relatively pointy on one end, and some of those pointed ends are quite tapered. Some handaxes are triangular in cross-section, some are flat: in fact, there is considerable variability within the category. Early handaxes, those made before about 450,000 years ago, are simpler and coarser than the later ones, which evidence finer flaking.

There are several disagreements in the archaeological literature about handaxes, but the primary one is about their function—what were these tools used for? Most scholars argue the handaxe was a cutting tool, but others suggest it was thrown as a weapon, and still others suggest it might also have played a role in social and/or sexual signaling ("my handaxe is larger than his"). Most scholars think handaxes were deliberately shaped, but a minority argue that if one resharpens the same rough tool over and over eventually it forms a handaxe.

Experimental archaeologists Alastair Key and colleagues compared the angles of the edges on 600 ancient handaxes to 500 others they experimentally reproduced and used. Their evidence suggests that at least some of the edges show wear indicating the long edges of the handaxes were used to cut wood or other material.

Acheulean Handaxe Distribution

The Acheulean handaxe is named after the Saint Acheul archaeological site in the lower Sommes valley of France where the tools were first discovered n the 1840's. The earliest Acheulean handaxe yet found is from the Kokiselei 4 site in the Rift valley of Kenya, dated about 1.76 million years ago. The earliest handaxe technology outside of Africa was identified at two cave sites in Spain, Solana del Zamborino, and Estrecho del Quipar, dated about 900,000 years ago. Other early examples are from the Konso-Gardula site in Ethiopia, Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, and Sterkfontein in South Africa.

Early handaxes have been associated with our hominid ancestor Homo erectus in Africa and Europe. The later ones seem to be associated with both H. erectus and H. heidelbergensis. Several hundred thousand handaxes have been recorded from the Old World, including Africa, Europe, and Asia.

Differences Between Lower and Middle Stone Age Axes

However, although the handaxe as a tool was in use for over an astounding one and a half million years, the tool did change over that period. There is evidence that, over time, making handaxes became a refined procedure. Early handaxes seem to have been sharpened by reduction of the tip alone, while later ones appear to have been resharpened along their entire length. 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 a little of both, is currently unknown.

Acheulean handaxes and their associated tool forms are not the first tools ever used. The oldest tool set is known as Oldowan tradition, and they include a large suite of chopping tools which are cruder and simpler tools, thought to have been used by Homo habilis. The earliest evidence of stone tool knapping technology is from the Lomekwi 3 site in West Turkana, Kenya, dated about 3.3 million years ago.

In addition, our hominin ancestors may well have created tools from bone and ivory, which have not survived in as nearly as much abundance as stone tools have. Zutovski and Barkai have identified elephant bone versions of handaxes in assemblages from several sites including Konso, dated between 300,000 and 1.4 million years ago.

Did Dad Teach Us How to Make Acheulean Handaxes?

Archaeologists have always assumed that the ability to make Acheulean handaxes was culturally transmitted—that means taught from generation to generation and tribe to tribe. Some scholars (Corbey and colleagues, Lycett and colleagues) suggest that handaxe forms were not, in fact, solely culturally transmitted, but rather were at least partly genetic artifacts. That is to say, that H. erectus and H. heidelbergensis were at least partly hard-wired to produce the handaxe shape and that the changes seen in the late Acheulean period are the result of a shift from genetic transmission to increasing reliance on cultural learning.

That may seem far-fetched at first: but many animals such as birds create species-specific nests or other artifacts that look cultural from the outside but instead are genetic-driven.

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