“langues de chat”: Early collection of Paleolithic Handaxes in N/W-Europe


This is a handaxe from the Bretagne, found in the late 19th century.  Peasants in Northern France called such implements “langues de chat” (cats tongues). It was not before the mid 19th century, that these artifacts were recognized as being made by early humans.

An intellectual revolution took place in the middle third of the 19th century in Northwestern Europe. This was the realization by educated amateurs and scientists in France Britain and Germany that the human past extends back into the deep time of geological history and that this past can be given shape in terms of the vast body of archaeological data referable to what we call today the Paleolithic. These man were children of their time and therefore got influenced by

  • Changing mentalities in the aftermath of the European enlightenment
  • The rise of scientific thinking, based on observation, and experiments
  • The formation of Paleontology and Geology as scientific disciplines.
  • The decline of the church’s power

About 1800 people had no idea about the age of the world. According to the biblical record God created Man and Woman and the remainder of mankind resulted. Noah’s contribution seemed so pivotal that events in the archaeological record were classified as “antediluvian”, “diluvian” and “postdiluvian”. According to the biblical narrative, the world was about 6000 years old.

Within this theological context any changes in the fossil record at the turn of the 19th century were explained by Cuvier’s catastrophism. He thought that during earlier geological periods a series of regional disasters destroyed local plant and animal life, but left other regions unaffected; animals from the unaffected regions moved into the newly unoccupied regions; these animals looked different from the previous ones which were found in the fossil record. Cuvier did not reject the idea that there had been earlier life forms.  In fact, he was the first scientist to document extinctions of ancient animals and was an internationally respected expert on dinosaurs.  However, he rejected the idea that their existence implied that evolution had occurred-he maintained the “fixity” of species.

The change in paradigms was not, simply the logical outcome of what we today regard as the major scientific trends of those times. To many of those who brought it about, it actually came as a surprise, and not necessarily a welcome one. Over the course of some 30 years before 1859, the year when the scientific establishment officially accepted human antiquity, there had been accumulating a body of evidence that we nowadays would view as a sufficient proof of our ancient Stone Age past. But it seemed far from compelling to most scientists who considered it at the time, whose knowledge of the relevant geological and archaeological records was, much sketchier than today.

In geology, two parallel developments occurred, when William Smith (1769- 1839) and Charles Lyell (1797-1875) led the way with concepts of superposition of strata and the law of actualism initiated by James Hutton (1726-1797). This culminated in Lyell’s 1830 classic “The Principles of Geology. In his book Lyell proposed that all past geological processes were the same as those of the present and spanned a tremendously long period, so that there was no need for supernatural catastrophes like Noah’s Flood to explain the stratigraphic or fossil record. Stratified deposits, if due to processes that are even now continuing, imply an age for Earth far greater than any that Biblical chronology assured.

Beginning with the late 18th century there was a slowly accumulating body of direct evidence that men lived together with extinct animals during the remote past. Johann Esper discovered in 1771 in the German Jura human bones in association with extinct animals like cave bear. John Frere, in 1797, found hand-axes alongside extinct animal bones 3 meters below the ground in undisturbed strata at Hoxne, Suffolk, and said they belonged to a remote stone-using period “even beyond that of the present world”. First finds of human fossils from Bilzingsleben (Thuringia), a now famous middle Pleistocene site, were mentioned by Friedrich von Schlotheim in 1818.

Frere`s account 1797:

frere handaxe aggsbach

John MacEnery, excavating in Kent’s Cavern, Torquay, in the 1820s, recognized the antiquity of handaxes found with ancient animal remains, but peer-group pressure prevented publication. Godwin Austen continued this work in 1840 and soon wrote that “the bones of the cave-mammals and the works of man must have been introduced into the cave before the floor of the stalagmite had been formed”. William Pengelly, a local techer, continued to work in Kent’s Cavern and soon agreed that his conscientious predecessors had been correct all the while, but his newly-published work of 1846 met with similar disdain. Nonetheless, despite continuing skepticism there was rising interest in the extreme age being argued for such remains. In 1858 a test became possible at a virgin site, a cave near Brixham in South Devon. Pengelly would excavate, and a committee chosen by the Royal Society and Geological Society would supervise. Soon a stalagmite floor was uncovered, and embedded within and beneath it were bones of cave lion, cave bear, hyena, mammoth, rhinoceros and reindeer, together with flint tools of human workmanship.

Pierre Tournal, about 1826-1834, was uncovering archaeological cave deposits in the Midi that he claimed could not be linked to any flood. François Jouannet (1765–1845), who early in the 19th century dug in the Perigord’s rock shelters and, with considerable insight, distinguished their Paleolithic chipped stone tool industry from the ground and polished forms he found nearby in open-air Neolithic stations. Jouannet remained true to an older tradition, however, in assuming that the two industries were more or less contemporary and in arguing that their makers were probably descendants of Noah’s grandson, Gomer, who many antiquaries believed colonized Northwestern Europe following the Deluge.

Initial discoveries of stone tools in the Somme Valley around Saint Acheul were made in the 1830s and 40s by Jacques Boucher de Perthes, a customs officer in Abbeville who discovered quantities of “pre-Celtic” stone tools and animal fossils from quarries near Abbeville, including the bifacially-worked stones which he called haches antediluviennes. Boucher de Perthes began publishing and exhibiting these stone tools in Paris in 1838. A satisfactory explanation of the stone tools found with fossils of extinct Pleistocene mammals, as he stated in his 3-volume treatise Antiqués Celtiques et Antédiluviennes (1848), demanded far more time depth than provided by biblical interpretations.  At first such claims met with derision from local scientists, many of whom still believed fossil layers were relatively recent and caused by “diluvial” catastrophes. But two geologists, Rigollot and Gaudry, who successively dug at Saint-Acheul in order to disprove Boucher de Perthes’ theories, ended up themselves finding flint tools associated with extinct animal bones, and were converted to his views. Finally several eminent  British geologists (Falconer, Prestwich, Godwin, Lyell) approved Boucher’s observations on the site in 1859. This was the beginning of the official scientific recognition of the existence of man in the age of the great extinct mammals.

As shown by A. Bowdoin Van Riper “the idea of prehistoric human origins threatened long-cherished religious beliefs and set off an intense debate among scientists as well as members of the clergy and the educated public. Scientists had to redefine their assumptions about human evolution and the relationship of science to Christianity. The idea of human prehistory also crossed the boundaries of scientific disciplines, and the once-distinct fields of geology, archaeology and anthropology were drawn together to study early human life”.

Suggested Reading:

A. Bowdoin Van Riper: Men Among the Mammoths: Victorian Science and the Discovery of Human Prehistory.

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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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