Hand Ax
Hand Ax – unchanged for 1.5 million years

The next task of our Narrative is to resolve the paradox of the virtually static nature of the hand ax industry from Africa and across their vast Eurasian diaspora for 70,000 generations while, during the same time, there occurred an unprecedented growth in the brain.  I believe the solution to this riddle lies in considering the phenomenon of culture from two different perspectives.

Culture is the ability to pass on a technology from one generation to the next.  Surely the reason that the hand ax industry remained unchanged for 1 ½ million years was that there was sufficient contact between blood related networks of kinship groups that this technology was passed along by direct participatory contact in an unbroken chain for over 70,000 generations.  Indeed I would go so far as to say that the persistence and consistency of this stone tool industry over such vast time and distance is testimony to the degree of peaceful contact between groups connected by diverse kinship relations from inter marriage.

However, from the perspective of human culture, in which culture has allowed each successive generation to improve on the technology of the last, it is the absence of such change that strikes us.  There is a manner of perfection about this tool that can be appreciated by holding such an object in one’s hand as I am at the moment of this writing.  Having closely watched for months the specimens of hand axes come and go on E-bay, I bought this one for $465.  It is from the Sahara, which is where many on sale were from.  I have no official papers that it is authentic except by getting a feel for the market over the time I had been reading the ebay write ups.  I assumed that there had been a fairly large cache found there recently dated from 4 to 500,000 years old.

There is a connection that I feel back across the depth of time to the ancestral species that rendered this object.  However, it is not just to the single individual that I feel this affinity, but it extends to the others with whom he was immersed in the utter collaboration in which it was fashioned as a communal act.

There is elemental beauty in the simplicity of its utility.  Fit to the palm of the hand, sharpened all around the edges, and then with one end more rounded and the other more pointed (“cordiforme”- heart shaped.)  Surely some were more facile at constructing them, but that was not the point of it.  Squatting around in a group they all had been making stones with one another since they were children.  It is central to the myth that these people completely lived within each other’s minds.  This was but one mode of communal association in which they spent their entire lives.

The knowledge of how to make a stone hand ax was a procedural kind knowledge like how to walk or run and hunt.  The degree to which they were immersed within the emotions and motivations of coordinating the activities of their small groups from one moment to the next precluded even a glimmer of awareness of knowing what they were doing in any way that they could conceive of improving the utility of it.  Their knowledge and their language were completely immersed in the present coordination of their lives within small groups which had relatively frequent contact with one another.

**IMPORTANT ADDENDUM: In the 1940s Hallum Movius established the “Movius Line” beyond from Central Asia down into the Arabian Peninsula beyond which no hand axes had been found up to then. More recently, hand axes have been found in China and Korea, but in East Asia the tools are significantly thicker, and both the frequency of the sites and the percentage of bifaced construction are much lower (Norton, 2006).


[1]Perhaps the only male advantage left standing is the ability to mentally rotate objects (although I’m pretty sure my exception-proves-the-rule wife is better at this than I am.) Weissa, E. et al (2003)




6 Comments on “The Hand Ax Mystery: Evidence for peaceful association between groups – an excerpt from the book”

  1. Makes the Stone Age sound pretty Edenic, at least from an emotional perspective—all that communal work, just hard enough to be interesting, as they shared an emotional sphere. How different our modern workspaces with everyone lost in computer screens. Plus there does seem a perfection about the hand ax, so balanced and fit for doing so much, so versatile; it could chop wood, defend against predators or enemies, and quarter game animals for consumption.

  2. Whilst there is relatively little change to the handaxe tradition during the Lower Palaeolithic – particularly when compared to the European Upper Palaeolithic, where a new industry emerges every 10,000 years or so – and this is certainly something that is worth investigating; I think you’re exaggerating this stasis and thus am skeptical of your conclusions.

    In reality we’re faced with significant geographical variation in the handaxe tradition. For example, there are many local industries which emerged during the period, such as the Karari industry that appeared near Lake Turkana ~1.6 mya and is characterised by unique high angled tools. Then there’s the geographical distribution in the spread of handaxes, with Hallam Movius famously noting that – aside from a handful of exceptions – there are no handaxes in Southeast Asia. On the other side of the so-called “Movius line” we find that on’y ~20% of sites contain handaxes, the rest having the more archaic Oldowan or developed Oldowan industry.

    All of these facts are not only inconsistent with your model of regular interaction but appear to outright contradict it. If there is regular interaction then we shouldn’t see industries developing in isolation and overall coverage of the handaxes should be almost universal when this is far from the case in reality. Indeed, one of the popular explanations for why the handaxes are absent east of the “Movius line” is demography: isolated cultures often loose technological advances. This famously happened in recent history when Tasmania was colonised by Aboriginal Australians who had the ability to make shields, fires and spreathrowers but by the time they were discovered by Europeans in 1642 they had lost all of this technology. Some suggest a similar thing may have happened when hominins migrated into Southeast Asia.

    In short, there’s little – if any – evidence Achuelean handaxes represent long distance, frequent, interactions.

    1. Mr. Benton,
      First I wish to sincerely thank you for your serious comment on my blog. Your points are very well taken, so allow me to “hedge” my claims a bit with the light that you have shed on them. My claim is that for the hand ax industry – clearly a culturally learned practice – to persist in broad stroke over such a long so relatively long a period of time – even with the variation you mention, it seems to me that there had to be frequent local contact between groups in which this practice was frequently carried on with multiple groups present all creating what in genetics would be called “drift.”. Here I am arguing against a combative kind of group selectionism recently advocated by EO Wilson in which this kind of co-operative group-group interaction would presumably not occur and I would presume that there would be far more variation and large scale suspension of the practice in favor of totally different technologies. Would you admit that there is no other example in nature of the general persistence of a cultural practice over such a long period of time?
      Very respectfully,
      John Wylie

      1. There it is plausible interactions between groups manufacturing handaxes, but you’re advocating a lot more than that. You’re suggesting there were consistent amicable relationships, blood-linked groups and marriages and communal events where multiple groups manufactured tools together resulting in “drift.” However, the universality with you justify the existence of these good relationships is not as significant as you suggest and multiple analyses have found that handaxes were not being influenced by neutral “genetic” drift but their morphology was actually being selected for.

        As for such a long lived technocomplex, my first thought would be the Oldowan, the industry which preceded the handaxe tradition. It appeared almost a million years before the first handaxes and continued to be used alongside them at almost every locale. Indeed, when bifacial tools weren’t made at a site – perhaps they were never adopted, it was not useful or the aforementioned demographic factors resulted in its loss – the Oldowan was instead. The first settlers outside of Africa exploited the Oldowan and in Southeast Asia, where handaxes never reached, the Oldowan was still used until after 500,000 years ago giving the industry a run of over 2 million years. Even after the “true” Oldowan had ended many people continued to manufacture these tools alongside more complex assemblages as a simple, expedient way of producing a tool for certain functions.

  3. When you say that these hand axes were “being selected for” I assume that you mean genetically. In fact the areas in the brain that are activated in knapping stones have recently been shown to be related to language. In Boxwood, England hand axes have been demonstrated, at least there, to have been a communal activity. It just seems clear to me that the industry was transmitted culturally – but that there were severe restraints on what could be transmitted, such as the size, the heart shape and the sharpening all around. All I am saying is that those characteristics were transmitted culturally and not genetically. Another confounding thing to consider is that the glacial non pace of of change during this time further cries out for interpretation because it is exactly the period of time that hominid brains were exploding in size. They certainly weren’t getting smarter at making these tools. My hunch is that this communication was tightly tied to the experience of observing others do it – something in psychology called identification (as opposed to imitation – which would come later with Homo sapiens.) In the process of identification, the learner actually assumes the identity of the teacher and what he (or she) is doing. Is it your understanding that the hand ax industry was not culturally transmitted? I am very interested in how you think it was transmitted. Once again, thanks so much for the interaction.

  4. No, when I say “selected for” I meant “chosen.” As in the manufacturerers were deliberatley picking out/selection/choosing certain shapes for some reason.

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