The Handaxe Enigma
Can the foundations of art be found in ancient stone handaxes?
Posted April 2, 2015
by Thomas Wynn, Frederick L. Coolidge, and James Hicks
Archaeologists, in at least one way, are lucky: Nearly all of the stone tools ever made are still in existence. The first stone tools are associated with Homo habilis and usually date to about 2.5 million years ago. Homo habilis is now thought to be a cousin of our most known distant ancestor, Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy), and these first simple stone tools are called Mode 1 or Oldowan stone tools (named for the Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania) where they were first found along with the partial skeletons of Homo habilis. There were only three varieties of Oldowan stone tools: flakes, which are sharp pieces of stone struck from a cobble; hammers, which are the stones used to strike the cobble; and cores, which are the cobbles after flakes had been struck off. The flakes were used to deflesh meat from bones, cut up meat, and cut up plants. The cores were also used to break open bigger bones to extract the highly nutritious bone marrow. Occasionally these tools have been found associated with the skeletal remains of whatever these habilines were eating.
About 1.8 million years ago a new hominid appeared, who was probably a direct ancestor of ours—Homo erectus. Their skeletons were unlike the australopithecines and habilines (who had short bodies, and long arms and legs for climbing). Homo erectus was taller (some as tall as 6 feet), and they weighed probably 120 to 140 lbs. They had made the transition from mostly living in trees to living full time on the ground. And here is where the stone tool enigma begins.
The stone tool kit of Homo erectus certainly included the very handy and useful sharp flakes, hammers and cores, but they added a new tool type—the handaxe. These handaxes were extensively modified and had a symmetrical, tear-drop or pear shape that was imposed by the knapper. These bifacial handaxes were first found in France, near the town of Saint-Acheul, in the 1800s, and they were subsequently labeled Acheulean or Mode 2 stone tools. Later, similar handaxes were found in Africa, and the oldest of them may date back about 1.8 million years. They have also been found in Europe, the Middle East, and south Asia.
So what is enigmatic about these Acheulean handaxes? The most famous peculiarity of handaxes is that our ancestors made them for over one and a half million years without changing the basic design. This kind of crushing conservatism indicates that handaxes were not really the equivalent of a modern tool, such as screwdriver. However, even though the basic design remained unchanged, handaxes themselves did become better over time. Their proportions become more regular, the symmetry improved, and they became thinner. Hominin knappers eventually made huge examples, and very small examples. The knappers also developed a variety of knew stone knapping techniques that gave them greater control over the shape of the artifact. Some late handaxes are truly beautiful objects, and not surprisingly, many archaeologists now think that this aesthetic aspect was intended.
Why do we and other authorities aver that handaxes were imbued with aesthetic power? 1) The handaxe form was ‘overdetermined.’ Quite simply, more effort was put into them than was necessary to produce a functional tool. 2) The culture historic distribution of handaxes correlates with no known environmental or economic factor (e.g., variety of hunting and gathering). Indeed, distributional evidence provides one of the great puzzles of the Stone Age: very few handaxes have been found in East and Southeast Asia, despite the presence of the same hominins who made handaxes elsewhere. 3) Handaxes are occasionally found in hundreds, even thousands, with little else associated with them that attests to use. 4) Very few handaxes show any evidence of having been used. Some archaeologists have argued this simply reflects resharpening, but this is a partial explanation at best. 5) The ‘overdetermined’ attributes (symmetry, thinness, cross-sectional regularity, and size [gigantism]) evolved over time, but the processing function apparently did not. 6) Examples that archaeologists consider to be finely made are rare in most assemblages. This exceptionalism is impossible to explain from a functional perspective. 7) Hominin knappers often chose raw material that had interesting inclusions (crystals, for example), and knapped around them. 8) In some places hominin knappers produced giant handaxes that could not have been hand tools.
All of these reasons combine to make a strong circumstantial case that hominin knappers were concerned with the aesthetic appearance of the handaxes, at least some of the time.
This was not art as we in the modern world think of art. Art includes more than just aesthetic appeal. It requires knowledge of cultural context, including often a symbolic component, and it requires evaluation (good, bad, etc.). Archaeologists do not think that handaxes carried symbolic reference the way modern art often does. But there may have been a component of evaluation. Why else would the occasional stone knapper have invested so much effort to produce one of the beautiful examples, if it were not to demonstrate his or her ability through its quality?