The Acheulean stone tool “culture” refers to the suite of typological characteristics associated with the stone tool technology of the later part of the Lower Paleolithic or Early Stone Age. In terms of stone tool culture chronology, the Acheulean culture immediately follows the Oldowan culture in Africa, and contemporary industries that possibly existed elsewhere in the world, and precedes the Middle Paleolithic or Middle Stone Age. The range of dates associated with the Acheulean is the subject of some controversy, although the general consensus is that it began around 1.6 my and ended around 200 ky.
The Acheulean was distributed throughout the tropical and temperate zones of the Old World. Acheulean sites are found over most of Africa (with the possible exception of tropical forested regions), range into the Near East and India, and extend into Northern and Western Europe. The earliest occurrences of the Acheulean culture are seen in the Rift Valley of East Africa. The Acheulean was present in the Near East and India certainly no later than 1 my and perhaps as early as 1.4 my. The Acheulean appeared in Europe no later than 800 ky. Until recently, hand axes were not thought to be present in Southeast Asia, which was thought to be divided from Europe and the Near East by the so-called Movius Line, named for Harvard prehistorian Hallam Movius. Recent discoveries in Southeast Asia have called this conventional understanding into question. It appears now that the Acheulean may have been present in Southeast Asia as early as 800 ky, depending on how the Acheulean is defined.
The Acheulean culture ranged remarkably widely in terms of both geography and chronology. It therefore likely represents the product of a substantial diversity of hominids, including Homo ergaster, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo sapiens. Much of this, of course, is dependent upon how hominid phylogeny is arranged.
History of Research
The Acheulean culture has an important place in Old World Paleolithic prehistory. The defining characteristic of the Acheulean is the presence of large bifacial reduced core tools, conventionally called “hand axes” or “cleavers.” The most remarkable feature of the Acheulean culture is the persistence of hand axes over an incredible duration of time—almost the entire course of the Pleistocene. Over the course of the Acheulean, hand axes gradually became thinner and more refined, incorporating technological advances such as core platform preparation. However, the overall design and shape of hand axes changed very slowly and remained remarkably consistent. This is the case both within individual sites that contain records of long periods of time and more generally across the Old World in prehistory.
The persistence of the Acheulean hand axe represents a substantial research problem, with numerous proposed explanations. These possibilities include inherited biological programming for hand axe manufacture, sexual signaling using hand axes, cultural instruction of offspring by parents for the production of hand axes, or simply the functional unity of an effective technological design, which was invented and utilized innumerable times in prehistory. The explanations are too numerous to list here, and there is extremely little consensus concerning this problem.
Hand axes were among the first stone tools recognized by modern prehistorians in Europe, likely because of their distinctive appearance. John Frere, an English scientist writing at the end of the 18th century, is frequently cited as the first to recognize hand axes and other Acheulean implements as the results of ancient human activity. However, the Acheulean culture is named for the type site of Saint-Acheul, discovered along the Somme River of France during the mid-19th century by Jacques Boucher de Perthes. In addition, the observation of hand axes in association with the bones of extinct animal species at sites like Saint-Acheul was instrumental in the recognition of the antiquity of human presence in Europe, as well as the rest of the world. Among these early researchers of hand axes were the pioneer geological prehistorians, such as Boucher de Perthes and Gabriel de Mortillet, working in the mid-1800s. These scholars and their contemporaries saw hand axes as “type fossils,” indicative of the earliest time periods of human prehistory in the same way that animal fossil specimens were used to date ancient geological layers.
Likewise, hand axes were noticed by archaeologists working in Africa very early at sites such as Stellenbosch, and this lent support to speculation concerning the early origins of humans on that continent. Here, hand axes became important features of stone tool typologies as early as the 1920s. Hand axes and their stratigraphic associations were extremely important to Louis Leakey’s early work in Kenya. He used hand axes as a linchpin in developing a stone tool chronology for East Africa. Among the most prominent of the natural historians to discuss the subject of hand axes and the Acheulean culture was Thomas Henry Huxley, who saw such stone tool industries as indicative of the sophistication of early humans.
By the first part of the 20th century, archaeologists were beginning to conventionally speak of the Acheulean culture as a ubiquitous industry of the early Paleolithic in the Old World. It was during this time that archaeologists began to speak of “the Acheulean” as a unitary set of stone tool types significant of a specific time range. In this context, the term was basically entirely restricted to chronology. It is important to understand that stone typology was one of the few methods for determining the age of archaeological sites. By identifying sequences of archaeological cultures, such as the Acheulean, with consistent sets of attributes, it was possible to determine the relative age of archaeological sites. With the Acheulean, the term was used to describe the relative position of stone tool remains in the chronology of the Paleolithic. The Acheulean has never really been used as a descriptive term for any patterns of behavior associated with this time period.
The Emergence of Modern Viewpoints
The emergence of chronometric dating techniques in the mid-20th century significantly changed the place of the Acheulean culture concept. This took the burden off of analysis of stone tools in terms of determining the age of archaeological sites and freed analysis to answer questions of behavior and culture change. Because of the newer importance of questions inferring behavior, the Acheulean culture has been defined using other technological characteristics, taking emphasis away from hand axes as type specimens almost exclusively defining the culture. These features include centripetal removal of flakes from cores, bifacial removal of flakes, low frequencies of “formal” or shaped or retouched tools, and large assemblages of unmodified flakes. In certain technological vocabularies, the Acheulean is referred to as “Mode 2” technology because of the presence of these features. In general, the Acheulean is characterized by simple flake reduction, without much evidence of core preparation until the transition to the Middle Paleolithic or Middle Stone Age. The early Acheulean is marked by deep, aggressive flake removal using stone hammers, while the later Acheulean is defined by more refined flaking using bone, wood, or antler hammers, especially in the thinning of bifaces.
The emphasis on hand axes as markers of the Acheulean was also largely based on the assumption that such core tools were the functional parts of the technology; flakes were viewed as waste products of the manufacturing process. More recent studies have recognized flakes as the most useful part of Acheulean technology, because they have a much sharper edge than either core tools like hand axes or retouched “formal” tools. This has somewhat challenged the validity of defining this culture as using hand axes so exclusively. In fact, this newer view sees cores, such as hand axes, as the waste product of flake production—the exact reverse of the classical notion. In this revised view, the Acheulean is no longer defined by the designed manufacture of specific tool types like hand axes, but instead by specific strategies of flake manufacture, core reduction, and lithic raw material economy. Because of this, more recent scholarship has been extremely wary of the hand axe as typological marker.
In addition, after the dating advances in the mid- 20th century, numerous sites appeared within the date range associated with the Acheulean, but they lacked hand axes. Oftentimes, sites without hand axes were even in close geographical proximity with contemporary sites containing hand axes. Such contemporary sites lacking hand axes have often been referred to as belonging to the “Developed Oldowan” industry, because of their presumed connection with the earlier culture. However, the Developed Oldowan is a term that has largely fallen out of favor within Paleolithic archaeology. Quickly, it became apparent that a number of factors affected whether or not hand axes were deposited at a given site, including the availability of appropriate raw material and the occurrence of technological problems for which the manufacture of hand axes was a solution. The absence of hand axes could not, by itself, indicate a separate technological culture. These rationales have also been used to explain the scarcity of hand axes east of the Movius Line. The geology of Southeast Asia is characterized largely by sedimentary contexts, which seldom produce the quality of raw material needed for hand axe manufacture found in Europe, the Near East, or Africa.
Further complicating the definition of the Acheulean tied to the presence of hand axes, with refinement of absolute dating techniques, many archaeological sites with hand axes were dated outside of the range usually associated with the Acheulean. This was especially the case in Europe, where numerous well-documented sites with hand axes were dated to surprisingly late in the Middle Paleolithic. For example, the Mousterian- of-Acheulean culture of the European Middle Paleolithic is defined by the presence of hand axes but occurs long after the end of the Acheulean in that region. Furthermore, it is unclear whether the hand axes present in the Mousterian-of-Acheulean tradition operated in the same way as their earlier counterparts.
These factors have meant that the use of hand axes as the definitional characteristic of the Acheulean has become problematic. In addition, few other features of equal clarity have been offered to redefine the Acheulean. In fact, in many circles, the use of the term “Acheulean” has been eliminated in favor of more general terminology more closely tied to chronology, rather than stone tool typology. Advances in dating techniques and new conceptual approaches to the archaeology of stone tools have presented a substantial critique of the Acheulean culture as a singular phenomenon. It now appears that the Acheulean was neither a group of related hominids nor a single “cultural” way of manufacturing stone tools. The term now has little agreed-upon significance beyond its meaning for chronology.
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