Acheulean Tradition - A Million and Half Years of the Same Tools

And You Thought You've Had that Hammer a Long Time!

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

The Acheulean (sometimes spelled Acheulian) is a stone tool techno-complex that emerged in East Africa during the Lower Paleolithic about 1.76 million years ago (abbreviated mya), and persisted until 300,000-200,000 years ago (300-200 ka), although in some places it continued as recently as 100 ka.

The humans who produced the Acheulean stone tool industry were members of the species Homo erectus and H. heidelbergensis.

During this period, Homo erectus left Africa through the Levantine Corridor and traveled into Eurasia and eventually Asia and Europe, bringing the technology with them.

The Acheulean was preceded by the Oldowan in Africa and parts of Eurasia, and it was followed by the Mousterian Middle Paleolithic in western Eurasia and the Middle Stone Age in Africa. The Acheulean was named after the Acheul site, a Lower Paleolithic site on the Somme River in France. Acheul was discovered in the mid-19th century.

Stone Tool Technology

The defining artifact for the Acheulean tradition is the Acheulean handaxe, but the toolkit also included other formal and informal tools. Those tools included flakes, flake tools and cores; elongated tools (or bifaces) such as cleavers and picks (sometimes called trihedrals for their triangular cross-sections); and spheroids or bolas, roughly rounded sedimentary limestone rocks used as a percussion tool.

Other percussion devices on Acheulean sites are hammerstones and anvils.

Acheulean tools demonstrate a significant technological advance over the earlier Oldowan; an advance thought to parallel a cognitive and adaptive increase in brain power. The Acheulean tradition is broadly correlated with the emergence of H. erectus, although the dating for this event is +/- 200,000 years, so the association of the evolution of H. erectus with the Acheulean toolkit is a bit of a controversy.

Besides flint-knapping, the Acheulean hominin was cracking nuts, working wood, and butchering carcasses with these tools. She had the ability to purposely create large flakes (>10 centimeters [4 inches] in length), and reproduce standard tool shapes.

Timing of the Acheulean

Pioneer paleontologist Mary Leakey established the Acheulean's position in time at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, where she found Acheulean tools stratified above the older Oldowan. Since those discoveries, hundreds of thousands of Acheulean handaxes have been found throughout Africa, Europe, and Asia, spanning several million square kilometers, in multiple ecological regions, and accounting for at least one hundred thousand generations of people.

The Acheulean is the oldest and longest-lasting stone tool technology in the world's history, accounting for more than half of all recorded tool-making. Scholars have identified technological improvements along the way, and although they agree that there were changes and developments during this huge chunk of time, there are no widely-accepted names for the periods of technology change, except in the Levant. Further, since the technology is so wide-spread, local and regional changes occurred differently at different times.

Chronology

The following is compiled from several different sources: see the bibliography below for further information.

  • 1.76-1.6 mya: Early Acheulean. Sites: Gona (1.6 mya), Kokiselei (1.75), Konso (1.75), FLK West, Koobi Fora, West Turkana, Sterkfontein, Bouri, all in eastern or southern Africa. Tool assemblages are dominated by large picks and thick bifaces/unifaces made on large flake blanks.
  • 1.6-1.2 mya: Sterkfontein, Konso Gardula; refinement of handaxe shape begins, advanced shaping of handaxes seen at Konso, Melka Kunture Gombore II by 850 ka.
  • 1.5 mya outside Africa: 'Ubeidiya in the Jordan Rift Valley of Israel, bifacial tools, including picks and handaxes, which account for over 20% of the tools. Additional tools are chopping tools, choppers and flake tools but no cleavers. Raw source material varies by tool: bifacial tools on basalt, chopping tools and flake tools on flint; spheroids in limestone
  • 1.5-1.4 in Africa: Peninj, Olduvai, Gadeb Garba. Massive production of large, shaped tools, high-quality raw materials, flake blanks, cleavers
  • 1.0 mya-700 ka: known as "Large Flake Acheulian" in some places: Gesher Benot Ya'aqov (780-660 ka Israel); Atapuerca, Baranc de la Boella (1 mya), Porto Maior, El Sotillo (all in Spain); Ternefine (Morocco). Numerous bifacial tools, handaxes, and cleavers make up the site assemblages; large flakes (exceeding 10 cm in maximal dimension) were used to produce handaxes. Basalt was the preferred source for cutting materials, and true flake cleavers were the most common tool.
  • 700-250 ka: Late Acheulean: Venosa Notarchirico (700-600 ka, Italy); La Noira (France, 700,000), Caune de l'Arago (690-90 ka, France), Pakefield (UK 700 ka), Boxgrove (UK, 500 ka). There are hundreds of sites dated to the Late Acheulean with many thousands of handaxes, found in harsh deserts to Mediterranean landscapes, and some of the sites have hundreds or thousands of handaxes. Cleavers are almost absent and large flake production no longer used as primary technology for handaxes, which are at the end made with early Levallois techniques
  • Mousterian: replaced all LP industries beginning around 250,000, widely associated with Neanderthals and later with the spread of Early Modern Humans.

Sources

This article is part of the About.com guide to the Lower Paleolithic, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology