Hand axes are an artifact type most frequently associated with the Acheulean culture of the Lower Paleolithic or the Early Stone Age. Hand axes are large, bifacially flaked cores. Typically, they are ovate, tear-drop shaped, almandine, or circular, and range from 10 cm to 20 cm in length. Rarely, specimens may reach significantly larger size ranges. Another frequent variant of the hand axe is the so-called cleaver. This variant is also bifacial flaked but is shaped in order to form a squared edge on at least one end. Hand axes are frequently made on large flakes, such as those removed from boulder cores in various regions. In addition, they are often manufactured from large cobbles or nodules of raw material.
The presence of this unique and distinctive artifact type is used almost exclusively as a marker of the Acheulean culture, which dates from around 1.6 my to 200 ky. Despite this, basic bifaces with aggressive hard hammer flaking are also present in the Oldowan industry and may be as old as the earliest stone tool assemblages. In addition, hand axes persist in some stone tool traditions significantly after the end of the Acheulean time range. For example, hand axes persist deep into the Middle Paleolithic of Europe.
John Frere is credited as the first author to formally discuss the archaeology of hand axes, writing in 1797 concerning the English site of Hoxne. For early archaeologists, the distinctive appearance facilitated the recognition of these stone tools as human-made artifacts. Jacques Boucher de Perthes, while excavating at the Acheulean type-site of Saint-Acheul on the Somme River of France, was the first to coin the term “hand axe,” and recognize them as a formal category of stone tools. In addition, Boucher de Perthes’s recognition of hand axes in association with extinct animal species was instrumental in establishing the antiquity of humans as a species. The recognition of hand axes as human-made stone tools was vital for the recognition of the archaeological remains of the rest of the Paleolithic and matched archaeology with the rapid pace of paleontological discovery. Subsequent discoveries of hand axes in Africa and Asia showed both their spatial and temporal ubiquity.
Hand axes are found in almost all of the temperate Old World, with the possible exception of tropical forest zones and hyperarid regions. Until recently, hand axes were not thought to be present in Southeast Asia, which was instead 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.
The most noteworthy and debated feature of hand axes is their persistence over almost the entire course of the Pleistocene. Over the course of the Achuelean culture, hand axes gradually become thinner and more refined, incorporating technological advances such as soft hammer flake removal and core platform preparation. However, the general shape of hand axes remains extremely constant over time. 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. Hand axes from Africa, Europe, and Asia, throughout the span of the Acheulean, share remarkably consistent sets of properties. 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.
The function of hand axes is also a frequently debated topic. Boucher de Perthes and other early researchers often suggested that hand axes were hafted, similar to modern axes. There is no evidence for this, however. Currently, there is a sizable set of frequently mentioned possible functions for hand axes: butchery, woodworking, digging, projectile weaponry, stylized core for flake production, and many more. There is certainly no consensus concerning function, although butchery is probably the most widely accepted. In addition, most current research tends to see unmodified flakes as sharper and therefore more effective cutting tools than hand axes. This notion has built more support for hand axes as sources for useful flakes, especially since bifacial flaking is an effective strategy for maximizing the output of useful flakes from a core. The most likely explanation, and perhaps the reason for the remarkable duration of hand axes as a phenomenon in prehistory, is that hand axes were extremely flexible technological objects and were used for most, if not all, of the functions offered above.
Hand axes have frequently tempted researchers into deep speculation. On the one hand, these unique and distinctive artifacts would seem to offer clues into vital areas of inquiry, such as hominid cognition, language, social structure and cultural transmission, subsistence, population history and movement, and a host of others. However, despite the immense number of cases from which data have been collected, there are extremely few questions concerning hand axes that have been answered unambiguously. It seems unlikely that any simple or easy answers are likely to come. In addition, modern archaeology has become wary of stone tool typology as an analytical technique and therefore less comfortable with research solely concerning hand axes. A more concerted effort is being made to see the variability among hand axes and their context as an aspect of the variability of Paleolithic stone tool assemblages. Still, hand axes represent a fascinating and puzzling research problem that will no doubt engage the interest of investigators long into the future.
- Deacon, H. J., & Deacon, J. (1999). Human beginnings in South Africa: Uncovering the secrets of the Stone Age. Cape Town: David Philip.
- Klein, R. G. (1999). The human career: Human biological and cultural origins. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Schick, K. D., & Toth, N. (1993). Making silent stones speak: Human evolution and the dawn of technology. New York: Simon & Schuster.