Handaxe Variability

Handaxe AggsbachThe variability of handaxes can be explained in most of the cases by three hypotheses:

  • Raw Material Hypothesis (White, 1998a):  The Handaxe form is directly related to the type, size and quality of raw material; Poor raw material leads to the production of pointed handaxes; Ovates are a preferred form.
  • Resharpening Hypothesis (McPherron, 1995): The handaxe formis directly related to the intensity of resharpening; Variation in form is due to different intensities of resharpening; Resharpening leads to a trajectory of forms from pointed to ovate; Resharpening is independent of raw material.
  • Cultural Hypothesis (Wenban-Smith, 2004): Variation linked to social factors that transcend geographical and temporal boundaries; Variation can be examined through the identification of unique cultural forms and a preferred form.

These factors explain variability, and of course these hypotheses have already been successfully tested (for example for the British Lower Paleolithic). But these hypotheses do not explain the fact, that Millions of sophisticated hand axes from the Acheulian and Middle Paleolithic technocomplexes have been found in Africa, Asia and Europe till now. The question is, why people devoted all that labor-intensive work for a simple cutting tool? A simple,  sharp flake could certainly have fulfilled nearly all the requirements for butchery (Tode 1953). The answer could be that handaxes were part of a tradition.

“A butchering tool for big game has to look like a real handaxe. In this way it was manufactured by fathers, grandfathers, and all the – mythological – ancestors. In doing so, the world could be held in an important balance. Another cultural reason is identity, because every person who is able to fulfil the traditional tasks is a good and appropriate member of the society. It is necessary for each individual to belong to his human group and it is forced to do things in the right way. These facts and not technological abilities of the early humans can explain more than one million years of the Acheulian culture. Technological changes and innovations are seen as dangerous for man and world. An imperative cultural pressure and feeling of safety were in balance throughout longest period of human’s being” (Fiedler 2002a).

I am proud, that some of my handaxe- photos are part of an interesting article by Sophie A. de Beaune. (Gradhiva 2013/1 [n° 17]) She argues:

“What is the nature of the relationship between aesthetics and function in prehistorical tools ? This article revisits Leroi-Gourhan’s notion of “ functional aesthetics ” via the analysis of bifaces – artefacts with two perpendicular planes of symmetry. I argue that the skilled act that lies behind the creation of the tool possesses its own form of beauty, one which is integral to the aesthetic of the tool itself.



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About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome! About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University. Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.
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5 Responses to Handaxe Variability

  1. Millán Mozota says:

    Great post. 2 comments:
    I’ll say all 3 hypothesis can be complementary in many cases.
    I dont like those kind of images (like the photo that illustrates the post), makes me think of pseudo-marks produced on tools by the exhibition/museographic/storing/manipulation events.

  2. Giorgio Chelidonio says:

    So far as I know hand axes functions remain uncertain and/or unknown.
    But 1,5 millions years tradition seems to deeply rooted in cultural transmission. In some central Italy sites (such as Fontana Ranuccio and Castel Guido) bone handaxes have been found, suggesting the cultural transmission of the acheulean project also in areas lacking suitable stone material to this purpose. Moreover, about resharpening it seems interesting that an acheulean hand axe could have been considered a meaningful flake-knife reserve if made of good flint (particularly when trasported to areas poor in vitreous stone qualities). Differently, when made of limestone or quartzite nodules (or big flakes) handaxe could have been rapidly discarded.
    Anyway, at least from a technical point of wiew, handaxe production could have greatly influenced by local availability of stones, both quality and dimensions.

  3. Kirsty Caddy says:

    Another theory which adds to this discussion (one that im currently critically assessing in an essay) is that of sexual selection theory (AKA ‘The Sexy Handaxe Theory”) as proposed by Kohn and Mithen in 1999 (there are lots of articles in debate of this theory), but it all adds to the discussions concerning handaxe variability.

    It is phenomenal that handaxes hardly changed over such a long period of time over such a wide geographical area. Looking at sites across France (Cagny, Soucy) show what could be considered as “task specific” sites, and show areas perhaps regional changes in tool manufacture. Yet these are relatively short lived episodes.

    I feel that raw material availability would have had a massive impact on the kinds of tools that could have been made. Yet this does not explain why, for example, early hominins went to such great lengths to make highly symmetrical handaxes. This is something Kohn and Mithen try to explain. A counter to this has been suggested in terms of functional requirements in terms of what is actually easier to make and use (Hayden & Villeneuve 2009). I remain somewhat unconvinced by Kohn and Mithen’s hypothesis, but is definitely an area that requires more research, data, interpretations, and academic debate!

  4. Robert Williams says:

    I am fairly new to the subject of ‘stone tool study’ and palaeoanthropology but a point I feel should be considered, perhaps more applicable to later stages of hand axe evolution, is whether the finished form of whatever hand axe pattern was being made, had any social implications within society structure. It is thought that some hand axe types were perhaps used for ceremonial purposes and things of that nature and if status symbols like that existed in those days, then could they have held a society significance in the way that, say, Ford Escorts or Porsche Carerra’s or Rolls Royce’s do within societies today? viz. he’s only got a Ford Escort so can’t be anything out of the ordinary, but he’s a flash so-and-so because he’s got a Porsche and he must have loads of money because he’s got a Rolls. A more sophisticated finish to a hand axe could indicate an owner more able to provide for his family, for example. I think it’s a possibility worth thinking about as man seems to have always had the natural instinct to impress others they feel are lower down the natural ladder, particularly when it comes to ‘mate’ selection, a basic and very natural need.

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