Acheulean Handaxe - Humanity's First Formally-Shaped Tool

Were Acheulean Handaxes Hard-Coded Into Our Genes?

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

Acheulean handaxes (sometimes spelled Acheulian and referred to as Acheulean bifaces) are large chipped stone objects which represent the oldest, most common, and longest-used formally-shaped working tool ever made by human beings (that is, members of the hominin family). Handaxes were first made 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 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 ("bifacially worked") into a wide variety of shapes: lanceolate (narrow and thin), 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 pointy 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 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 used for throwing as a weapon, and still others suggest it also played a role in social and/or sexual signaling.

Most think it was deliberately shaped; others think that if you resharpen the same tool over and over eventually it forms a handaxe. Experimental archaeologists Key and colleagues looked at the angles of the edges on 600 ancient handaxes and experimentally reproduced another 500 based on those forms.

Their evidence suggests that at least some of the edges were decidedly for cutting.

Acheulean Handaxe Distribution

The Acheulean handaxe is named after the St. Acheul archaeological site in France where the tools were first identified 150 years ago. 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

If it is difficult for us to wrap our minds around the idea that the handaxe remained essentially unchanged for over a million and a half years, and that's because they did change.

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 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 a little of both, is currently unknown.

Acheulean handaxes and their associated tool forms are not the first tools ever used: that would be Oldowan tradition, and represent a suite of chopping tools which are cruder and simpler tools, thought to have been used by Homo habilis. The earliest evidence of knapped stone tool technology is from the Lomekwi 3 site in West Turkana, Kenya, dated about 3.3 million years ago. Our hominin ancestors may well have created tools from bone and ivory, which have not survived in as nearly as much abundance as stone has.

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) are beginning to suggest that handaxes 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.


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

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Acheulean Handaxe - Humanity's First Formally-Shaped Tool." ThoughtCo, Oct. 16, 2016, Hirst, K. Kris. (2016, October 16). Acheulean Handaxe - Humanity's First Formally-Shaped Tool. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Acheulean Handaxe - Humanity's First Formally-Shaped Tool." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 22, 2018).