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Palaeolithic Hand Axe, Acheulian, ca. 500,000 BC | by JC Merriman
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Palaeolithic Hand Axe, Acheulian, ca. 500,000 BC

From: Abbeville, Northern France.

Collecting history: Excavated by Jacques Boucher de Perthes, 1830-40s. Given to AW Franks of the British Museum by Boucher de Perthes, 1860. Given to Prof. John Smith of the University of Sydney by Dr. Samuel Birch of the British Museum, 1861 for donation to the Nicholson Museum, 1862.


From: 50 Objects 50 Stories Exhibition.


"The Acheulian is one of the first defined prehistoric techno-complexes and is characterized by shaped bifacial stone tools. It probably originated in Africa, spreading to Europe and Asia perhaps as early as ~1 million years (Myr) ago. The origin of the Acheulian is thought to have closely coincided with major changes in human brain evolution, allowing for further technological developments."


"In the current state of knowledge, the European distribution of Acheulian industries that include handaxes

and cleavers appears to be centered in southwestern Europe; their maximum northward expansion

reaches England and Germany. North of latitude 52° and east of Germany and Italy, handaxe industries are conspicuously absent, occurring only sporadically in southeastern Europe. Handaxe industries are again well documented in western Asia, from Georgia to Israel and the Arabian Peninsula, clearly indicating an East African origin."


"The Acheulian handaxe is the icon of the Lower Palaeolithic. Since they are found from North Wales to southern Africa, from Iberia to India, and now even in China, it is possible to talk of an Acheulian world which lasted for at least one million years. Not surprisingly, much has been written about the significance of handaxes for understanding human evolution. Various authors have seen in them vital evidence for the discussion of early hominids with respect to language ability, technological capacity, raw material choice, landscape use, sexual selection and cognitive evolution, to name but a few. Handaxes have been measured, typed, replicated and examined for use wear and abrasion. They are the most studied of artefacts but remain enigmas, as Wynn (1995) once described them."



"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."


"John Frere is generally credited as being the first to suggest a very ancient date for Acheulean hand-axes. In 1797 he sent two examples to the Royal Academy in London from Hoxne in Suffolk. He had found them in prehistoric lake deposits along with the bones of extinct animals and concluded that they were made by people "who had not the use of metals" and that they belonged to a "very ancient period indeed, even beyond the present world". His ideas were ignored by his contemporaries however, who subscribed to a pre-Darwinian view of human evolution.


Later, Jacques Boucher de Crèvecœur de Perthes, working between 1836 and 1846, collected further examples of hand-axes and fossilised animal bone from the gravel river terraces of the Somme near Abbeville in northern France. Again, his theories attributing great antiquity to the finds were spurned by his colleagues until one of de Perthe's main opponents, Dr Marcel Jérôme Rigollot, began finding more tools near Saint Acheul. Following visits to both Abbeville and Saint Acheul by the geologist Joseph Prestwich, the age of the tools was finally accepted.


Louis Laurent Gabriel de Mortillet described the characteristic hand-axe tools as belonging to L'Epoque de St Acheul in 1872. The industry was renamed as the Acheulean in 1925.


Recently, it has been suggested that the Acheulean tool users adopted the handaxe as a social artefact, meaning that it embodied something beyond its function of a butchery or wood cutting tool. Knowing how to create and use these tools would have been a valuable skill and the more elaborate ones suggest that they played a role in their owners' identity and their interactions with others. This would help explain the apparent over-sophistication of some examples which may represent a "historically accrued social significance".


One theory goes further and suggests that some special hand-axes were made and displayed by males in search of mate, using a large, well-made hand-axe to demonstrate that they possessed sufficient strength and skill to pass on to their offspring. Once they had attracted a female at a group gathering, it is suggested that they would discard their axes, perhaps explaining why so many are found together.


Hand-axe as a left over core

Stone knapping with limited digital dexterity makes the center of gravity the required direction of flake removal. Physics then dictates a circular or oval end pattern, similar to the handaxe, for a leftover core after flake production. This would explain the abundance, wide distribution, proximity to source, consistent shape, and lack of actual use, of these artifacts."



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Taken on June 29, 2012