Backed Handaxes during the Acheulian

This is a asymmetric backed biface found in the Gargano region, belonging to MIS 9 or 11. If it had been found in the Swabian Jura, it would have called a “Bocksteinmesser” , but these belong to a time after MIS5e and are common in some inventories of the Middle-East European Micoquian (Keilmessergruppen).

Such handaxes are rare in S-Europe. The best documented ensemble comes from the late Middle Pleistocene cave site of Galeria Pesada in Portuguese Estremadura. The lithic assemblages are all similar and consist of a combination of a few classic Acheulean tools, a rich series of bifacial „Micoquian“ tools (foliates, small asymmetric bifaces, Keilmesser, and backed handaxes), and a large number of scrapers, often on quartz.

We have no indications that Acheulian handaxes were used as hafted tools. The most simple solution of using a biface with two sharp edges is the use the precision grip, that minimizes the risk of cutting the hand and is also effective for using a handaxe as a knife.

The precision grip is when the intermediate and distal phalanges and the thumb press against each other. Being able to touch the index fingertip with the tip of the thumb – pulp to pulp contact – is one of the unique characteristics of our species (Homo sp.). Homo erectus used a precision grip 1.7 million years ago, while A. afarensis, lacked a full precision grip 3.1 million years ago, although this species had developed several but not all of the traits in its hand bones that are associated with the precision grip required for habitual toolmaking.

Wrapping a hand axe in thick hide or bark is also a practical solution that allows to grasp the tool if it is to large and heavy for a simple precision grip. Alternatively one could use a backed handaxe, but this comes at the expense of the length of the cutting edge. Maybe this is the explanation, that examples of this solution are rare in the Archaeological record. The systematic production of backed Acheulian handaxes is mainly known from the Near East.

The handaxes from the Menashe plateau in Israel, in the region of Nahal Daliya and Nahal Menashe, have been repeatedly related to the Late Acheulian in the literature, because artifacts with a clear Yabrudian character have not been reported from the Menashe workshop sites. This definition ex negativo may not be sufficient to describe handaxe variability. Many smaller handaxes would metrically fit into the Acheulo-Yabrudian group as well. Sites with handaxes were found on the tops of hills, divided from one another by wadis. The total number of handaxes collected was above 2000. The Cordiforms-Amygdaloids amounted to between 40% – 50% in each site. The second group in importance was the Ovaloids-Discoidals.In all the sites Cleavers were few in number and Cleavers on flakes were entirely absent. A feature was the high precentage of Backed Handaxes at Daliya 1 as compared with the lower percentage at Ramot Menashe 1. Fig 2 shows a partial biface with a natural back from the Menashe Plateau.

The Upper Galilee hosts a few world-famous prehistoric sites, like the Lower–Middle Palaeolithic Amud Cave and the Lower Palaeolithic Gesher Benot Yaakov, and a few less well-known, such as Baram and Yiron in the Dishon Basin, and Zuttiyeh and Shovach caves in Nahal Amud. Especially at Baram, backed handaxes and other rare bifaces like handaxes with combined convex /concave edges were recognized.

in the southern Beqaa valley the assemblage of Joub  Jannine 1 exhibits trihedrals, some cleavers, cortical backed bifaces and may be 500k.a. old. This age estimation of surface material is based on typological consideration.

In Egypt, assemblages from Kharga, Dakhla (Fig.3), Bir Tarfawi and Bir Sahara in the Western Desert show distinctive characteristics (e.g. single and double backed Handaxes and “Prodniks” at Dakhla; well executed lanceolated bifaces and large cordiforms at Kharga; small, thin and well-executed Handaxes at Bir Sahara East and Bir Tarfawi). Many of these assemblages are associated with fossil springs in the floor of oasis depressions in the playa deposits. It is generally assumed that these desert sites were established during periods of more humid weather conditions which would have been attractive to visitors. Geochronometric dating of the Acheulean deposits in the oases of the western desert suggest a minimum age of 350-400 k.a. BP while recent work on the geochronology of the fossil-spring tufas of the Kharga Oasis have provided U-series minimum ages of 300 k.a. B.P.)

Similar handaxes, but made of Obsidian and putatively of late Middle Pleistocene age are also known from Göllü Dag within the Central Anatolian Volcanic Province.

In other regions of the Near East and Africa, backed handaxes are virtually absent. Backed tools and hafting concepts mark the beginning of a new era- both in the Middle East (during the Jabrudian) and in East Africa (during the early MSA). We do not realy know why our ancestors began to reduced the lenght of total cutting edge per artifact and switched to a new technology. Maybe new tasks requiered a more precise target power performance, that could better achieved by backing and hafting.

The Acheulian of the Menashe Hills (Israel)

The invention of Hafting and Backing

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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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