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February 26, 2009

Is a Hand Ax Really a Hand Ax?

Bifaz_de_Atapuerca_(TG10)

Long before humans painted caves or made colorful necklaces out of snail shells, they manufactured beautifully symmetrical, teardrop-shaped stone tools that archaeologists call hand axes, such as the ones shown at left from Atapuerca, Spain. At least, hand axes seem beautiful to us today, even if their exact function and meaning are a matter of debate. Most archaeologists think that hand axes, which begin showing up at archaeological sites about 1.7 million years ago, were used to cut plants and butcher animals. And many assume that making such a symmetrical object required a mental template and the ability to impose a predetermined form on a piece of stone. As I discuss in this month’s Origins essay in Science, these talents could be considered proxies for symbolic capacities. And some researchers—as I discuss in a Random Sample in this week’s issue of Science—have suggested that hand axes were also the result of Darwinian “sexual selection.” According to this controversial idea, a well-made hand ax was a sign that its maker, presumed to be a guy, had good genes and would be a suitable mate for any gal lucky enough to have him.

So hand axes have been considered to be handy tools, courting devices, and signs of symbolic smarts. But what if they were none of these things? Since the early 1990s, one archaeologist has argued that there is no evidence early humans actually intended to make hand axes. Iain Davidson, now a professor emeritus at the University of New England (UNE) in Armidale, Australia, contends that the hand ax might have been what was left over when toolmakers were done striking sharp flakes from a stone core.

Davidson first argued for what he calls the finished-artifact fallacy in 1993, together with UNE psychologist William Noble, and he has elaborated on the idea in more recent publications. I caught up with him late last year at Harvard University, where he is currently a visiting professor. Over a long and pleasant lunch in Harvard Square, he made it clear that he has not changed his mind on the issue.

For one thing, Davidson says, archaeologists tend to focus their studies on the most symmetrical hand axes, thus introducing a bias into their analyses. They see more patterning than really exists on average and then interpret that patterning as evidence that early humans intended to create tools that look that way. And because hand axes were probably made by striking flakes from a core with a second stone—indeed, the marks where the flakes were taken off are clearly visible on the hand ax—archaeologists are making unproven assumptions when they conclude that the hand ax rather than the flakes were the most important product, Davidson contends. At the 500,000-year-old site of Boxgrove in England, for example, where hundreds of hand axes have been found, there are also signs that the flakes taken from them were used as tools by early humans.

“I can imagine a situation at Boxgrove where [early humans] were walking around with a core, striking off flakes when they needed them, and then abandoning the core when it was no longer useful,” Davidson told me. As for why the core would have that characteristic teardrop shape, Davidson explained that it would be easier to hold in the hand if you only took flakes off of one end.

Davidson’s view is definitely a minority one. “The form of [hand axes] clearly reflects the intention of the toolmakers,” says archaeologist Dietrich Stout of University College London. But few archaeologists argue that the flakes could not also have been used as tools, and Davidson’s idea does appeal to some. Anthropologist April Nowell of the University of Victoria in Canada, who challenges the sexual-selection hypothesis, told me that she is “sympathetic” to Davidson’s notion. “People get hung up on the symmetrical form that some [hand axes] have,” Nowell said. “We have exaggerated what a typical hand ax looks like, and we don’t think about the less refined ones. There is a variation from tools that just look like cores to those that look like hand axes.”

—Michael Balter


About Iain Davidson

Excavations at Boxgrove

PHOTO CREDIT: José-Manuel Benito Álvarez

4 Comments

One critical issue that has not been mentioned in this discussion about the handaxe shape involves microlithic tools. Davidson sees the handaxe teardrop shape as the mere core left over from the real goal of creating sharp flakes. However, it is difficult to think of the teardrop shape as a mere core when one considers the often identical shape as found in many microlithic tools such as those from Bilzingsleben (c. 320-000, 412,000 BP). In a readily-grasped figure available here,

http://www-personal.umich.edu/~feliks/phi-abstract-&-selected-figures/index.html

I compare side-by-side equalized images of Acheulian handaxes in the ratio 1.6 with microliths in the same ratio. One can see not only the identical teardrop shape in the microliths (as small as 18mm) and handaxes (as large as 170mm) but also a similar flaking style. Keep in mind that the flakes produced in order to create the microliths would barely be large enough to hold in any meaningful way let alone use as stand-alone tools. It is also highly unlikely that such small resulting flakes would have been used as part of composite tools, either, unless these were high-precision tools of some kind. This figure (Fig. 4) is part of a section called "Phi-based conceptual units" in the paper, Phi in the Acheulian, which was presented at the XVth UISPP Congress in Lisbon, 2006. The Phi paper was part 2 of a 2-part program and was meant to be published in that order. However, the first part, which is called The Graphics of Bilzingsleben

http://www-personal.umich.edu/~feliks/graphics-of-bilzingsleben/index.html

is yet to be published. Each paper supports highly-evolved technical ability in Acheulian people by means of falsifiable geometric studies.

One critical issue that has not been mentioned in this discussion about the handaxe shape involves microlithic tools. Davidson sees the handaxe teardrop shape as the mere core left over from the real goal of creating sharp flakes. However, it is difficult to think of the teardrop shape as a mere core when one considers the often identical shape as found in many microlithic tools such as those from Bilzingsleben (c. 320-000, 412,000 BP). In a readily-grasped figure available here,

http://www-personal.umich.edu/~feliks/phi-abstract-&-selected-figures/index.html,

I compare side-by-side equalized images of Acheulian handaxes in the ratio 1.6 with microliths in the same ratio. One can see not only the identical teardrop shape in the microliths (as small as 18mm) and handaxes (as large as 170mm) but also a similar flaking style. Keep in mind that the flakes produced in order to create the microliths would barely be large enough to hold in any meaningful way let alone use as stand-alone tools. It is also highly unlikely that such small resulting flakes would have been used as part of composite tools, either, unless these were high-precision tools of some kind. This figure (Fig. 4) is part of a section called "Phi-based conceptual units" in the paper, Phi in the Acheulian, which was presented at the XVth UISPP Congress in Lisbon, 2006. The Phi paper was part 2 of a 2-part program and was meant to be published in that order. However, the first part, which is called The Graphics of Bilzingsleben,

http://www-personal.umich.edu/~feliks/graphics-of-bilzingsleben/index.html,

is yet to be published. Each paper supports highly-evolved technical ability in Acheulian peoples by geometric means.

That handaxe is indeed really beautiful. But it is not really remarkable. An awful lot of the beauty comes from the apparently deliberate concentric lines all parallel with the perimeter of the object. But this is just a product of the manner in which the ironstone was formed and the manner of procuring the original raw material source that was made into a core. In this case the original lump of raw material was composed of a series of thin, slightly different coloured layers in the ironstone where, I would say the original shape was probably like a book. If you then remove flakes from the sides of the book, provided the plane of symmetry lies along a central page in the book, you will ALWAYS get this effect. Now the really remarkable thing, as with the couple of handaxes from southern Britain that have visible fossil shells exposed in the unflaked cortex of the flint nodule, is the rarity of such objects. If there was any aesthetic sense in either this handaxe or in the fossil shell ones, everything about the context in which they were created suggests they should have been more prevalent.

Indeed, without going into it, the whole point is encapsulated in the comment. Fewer than 10% handaxes, lots of ad hoc tools. This is precisely what I would predict in an unsorted assemblage. But historically the emphasis has been on the handaxes (and the pretty ones at that) to the extent that we have ignored the significance of the rest of the assemblage.

Anyone who subscribes to Davidson's point of view ought to spend a little time looking at hand-axes in the Northern Cape area of South Africa. They include this one:
http://www.cope.co.za/archaeo/masterhandaxe.htm

The variety of hand axes found in the region is also large - some are very rough, and could imagined as portable flake dispensers, but when the whole range is taken into account the idea falls down.

At Kathu Townlands, where an estimated 2-20 billion Acheulean artefacts are found in one site, fewer than 10% are hand axes. Cleavers are more evident, but the majority appear to be ad-hoc tools, made quickly for some purpose, used once and discarded.

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