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STONE AGE HAND-AXES
by W.J. Kowalski

 


1. There were no handaxes at the beginning of the Pleistocene, and none at the end, but for one million years in between this was the tool of choice for stone age man. Although everpresent in stone age culture, the exact purpose and use of this tool remains a mystery.

The Pleistocene lasted from two million years ago to the present., which is called the Holocene. At the beginning of the Pleistocene primitive man was already using fire and making stone, bone, and wooden tools. He wore animal skins scraped clean with stone scrapers, cut in straight lines and stitched together with leather laces.

The reason handaxes seem to have no specific purpose is probably because they served a general purpose. They could could be used for cutting meat, scraping skins, chopping wood, digging holes, hammering bone or wood, and perhaps as a last resort defense against wild animals -- perhaps sort of a Stone Age Swiss army knife. The proliferation and abundance of handaxes suggests that perhaps everyone had one. As techniques for making handaxes slowly improved over the millennia, these same techniques would have led to new types of specialized tools, ultimately making the handaxe obsolete.

The handaxe appears almost everywhere that early man appears (see image at left), with the exception of the very far east. Ultimately the handaxe was replaced by an array of specialized tools, and may have ceased to have any value beyond that of pure tradition and culture. Perhaps every boy who came of age was given his own handaxe, or perhaps they came to have only ritualistic use. Some late handaxes were excellently manufactured, but seemed to receive little actual use. A number have been found that were deliberately driven point first into the ground and left, for unknown reasons.

Handaxes come in many shapes and sizes, and many styles unique to cultures of specific periods and in specific geographical areas. Almost all handaxes have a point, are sized for the hand and shaped to be held. Almost no handaxes have notches for mounting. Attempts to dramatize Stone Age man as a crude and warlike savage often show handaxes mounted as oversized spearpoints. Such comic personification says more about our violent modern culture than it does about this pristine world of teenage hunters (average age 19) who spent their time on beaches and riverbanks. They rarely lived beyond the age of 35, not because of hardship, but more probably because of disease, since even minor cuts could cause fatal infections.

These youthful cavepeople made fine stone tools, works of art, and spears and arrows for hunting, but they made no weapons for killing other humans until about 26,000 BCE, perhaps when leaders (older males?) became predominant. The hunters of the stone age enjoyed abundant game during warmer climates, hunting many species to extinction. They had the time to create the most excellent stonework and wall paintings, circa 100,000 - 20,000 BCE. It has been noted before that the quality of stone age art has not been exceeded today -- only our technology has improved.

2. At the right is an early chopper from about 2,000,000 BCE. Chopper industries preceded handaxes but led directly to them as tool-making methods evolved. Choppers, also an all-purpose tool, were the first stone tools to be made rather than 'found'.





Acheulean Handaxes from Saint-Acheul, France. Dated to the Lower Paleolithic, Riss glaciation, or approximately 1,000,000 to 300,000 BCE.
Primitive Abbevillian handaxe from Olduvai, approximately 1,000,000 BCE.





Acheulean handaxes from Sbaika, Algeria. Made by homo erectus. Dated to the Riss glaciation.


Crude Acheulean handaxes from Sbaika, Algeria. From about 1,000,000 to 500,000 BCE.


Crude handaxe from Abbevillian culture. Found in Abbeville, France. Perhaps from 1,000,000 to 500,000 BCE.
Large Padjitanian handaxe from Java. About 750,000 BCE.


Almond shaped handaxes from the Late Acheulean. Found near St. Acheul, France. Perhaps from about 300,000 to 100,000 BCE.


Upper Acheulean handaxes from Kalambo Falls, northern Rhodesia. Approximately 100,000 to 200,00 BCE.
Small Micoquian handaxes from La Micoque, France. From 100,000 BCE.
Medium sized Micoquian handaxes from La Micoque, France. From 100,000 BCE.
Large Micoquian handaxes from La Micoque, France. From 100,000 BCE.
Small handaxe made from rock crystal. Late Mousterian, about 100,000 BCE. From Kulna cave, Moravia.


Small handaxes. Late Mousterian, about 100,000 BCE. From Kulna cave, Moravia.


Upper Acheulean handaxes from Isimila, Tanzania. From about 100,000 BCE.
Mousterian handaxe from Kulna cave, Moravia, Czechoslovakia.
Giant Acheulean handaxe from Norfolk, England, over 6" long and 2.5 inches wide. Most handaxes were only 10 cm long, but then Homo habilis and erectus were only about 4 feet tall.
Larger, more evolved Abbevillian handaxes from Olduvai, Africa. Approximately 500,000 BCE.


Small, crudely struck handaxes from Swanscombe, Kent, found in the middle gravels. Acheulean, perhaps 500,000 BCE.
   


Pointed Clactonian handaxes from Swanscombe, Kent, England. This fine workmanship by a tool-making Neanderthal was noted by J.J. Wymer, who was also British.
Subtriangular Mousterian handaxe, about 500,000 BCE.
Triangular Mousterian handaxe, about 500,000 BCE.
Cordate Mousterian handaxe, about 500,000 BCE.
Acheulean cordate handaxe made of silcrete. From Elandsfontein, Cape Province, South Africa. Middle Pleistocene, 500,000 BCE.
Middle Acheulean handaxe from Swanscombe. About 300,000 - 500,000 BCE.
Elegant cordate handaxe from Hoxne, Suffolk, England. Late Aceulean, about 350,000 BCE.
Three views of a backed handaxe from the Upper Acheulean, approximately 200,000 to 100,000 BCE.
Ovate Aceulean handaxe from about 200,000 BCE. Found in the dunes near Abbeville, France.
Small Mousterian handaxe of Acheulean tradition. From Pech del'Aze. About 100,000 BCE.
Handaxes from Perigord, France. The lower handaxe still has its point intact. Mousterian period. From the Perigord Museum.
Large handaxe of the Mousterian period. From the Perigord Museum.
Ovoid Mousterian handaxe. From the Perigord Museum.
Mousterian handaxe from Volgogrod, Russia. About 80,000 BCE.
Mousterian Cordiform handaxe of Mousterian tradition. From the beginning of the Wurm glaciation, about 70,000 BCE. Note the increased attention to detail.
East Gravettian (Pavlovian) handaxe from Dolni Vestonice, Czechoslovakia. From about 30,000 BCE.
Two views of a specialized type of late handaxe called a Prodnik, which was a sort of bifacial knife. From Wylotne, Poland, Middle Paleolithic (Wurm II) about 50,000 -30,000 BCE. Later prodniks specialized further and became different tools, while handaxes themselves became rare and then disappeared.
An advanced, or 'perfected', handaxe from the late Mousterian or Early Aurignacian (Perigordian). perhaps 50,000 - 35,000 BCE. From the Perigord Museum.
Triangular handaxes of the perfected variety, Early Aurignacian. If the dating is correct, these are among the last handaxes that were made before the final diversification and specialization of fine stone tools made the handaxe obsolete.