Thursday, December 18, 2008

Stone Age Tool Find

Acheulean is the name given to an archaeological industry of stone tool manufacture associated with prehistoric hominins during the Lower Paleolithic era across Africa and much of West Asia and Europe. Acheulean tools are typically found with Homo erectus remains.

I picked this particular handaxe up on a public beach in Cape Town. One of the local experts said that the find had no particular scientific value because the origin of the artifact could never be determined. So, it will make a nice paperweight. The length is approximately 18cm and the handaxe is water-worn and smooth.

It was the dominant technology for the vast majority of human history and more than one million years ago it was Acheulean tool users who left Africa to first successfully colonize Eurasia. Their distinctive oval and pear-shaped handaxes have been found over a wide area and some examples attained a very high level of sophistication suggesting that the roots of human art, economy and social organization arose as a result of their development. Although it developed in Africa, the industry is named after the type site of Saint Acheul, now a suburb of Amiens in northern France, where some of the first examples were identified in the nineteenth century.

The Lower Paleolithic is the earliest subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. It spans the time from around 2.5 million years ago when the first evidence of craft and use of stone tools by hominids appears in the current archaeological record, until around 100,000 years ago when important evolutionary and technological changes (behavioral modernity) ushered in the Middle Paleolithic.

Early species

The earliest hominids, known as australopithecines (personified by the famous find of Lucy by Don Johansen in Ethiopia) were not advanced stone tool users and were likely to have been common prey for larger animals. Sometime before 3 million years ago the first fossils that may be called Homo appear in the archaeological record. They may have evolved from the australopithecines or come from another phylogenetic branch of the primates.

Homo habilis remains, such as those from Olduvai Gorge, are much more recognizable as humans. Stone-tool use was developed by these people around 2.5 million years ago before they were replaced by Homo erectus about 1.5 million years ago. Members of Homo habilis used Olduwan tools and had learned to control fire to support the hunter-gatherer method of subsistence.


Use-wear analysis on Acheulean tools suggests there was generally no specialization in the different types created and that they were multi-use implements. Functions included hacking wood from a tree, cutting animal carcasses as well as scraping and cutting hides when necessary. Some tools may have been better suited to digging roots or butchering animals than others however.

Alternative theories include a use for ovate hand-axes as a kind of hunting discus to be hurled at prey. Puzzlingly, there are also examples of sites where hundreds of hand-axes, many impractically large and also apparently unused, have been found in close association together. Sites such as Melka Kunturé in Ethiopia, Olorgesailie in Kenya, Isimila in Tanzania and Kalambo Falls in Zambia have produced evidence that suggests Acheulean hand-axes may not always have had a functional purpose.

Recently, it has been suggested that the Acheulean tool users adopted the handaxe as a social artifact, 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.

** Most of this text was extracted from where more information may be found.

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