Event 42

500,000 to 250,000 years ago

A later Acheulean flint handaxe from the site of St. Acheul, France, about 400,000 years old. Credit: Photo by Kathy Schick, courtesy of the Stone Age Institute. All rights reserved.

Hundreds of thousands of years before the first representational art, ancient humans began to make drop-dead gorgeous stone tools, namely more refined handaxes often made by the use of a “soft hammer,” an object softer than the stone being flaked. Such soft hammers could have been made of wood, bone, antler, ivory, or even softer stone. These handaxe and cleaver forms, from the later Acheulean industry, show a mastery of craftsmanship that produced thinner, sharper, and more symmetrical tools, and many scientists would say these tools show a sense of aesthetics and even bravado on the part of their makers. These forms indicate that their tool-makers (probably mainly Homo heidelbergensis) had a stronger cognitive sense of style and symmetry than earlier hominins.

Such refined handaxes and cleavers are typically found in much of Africa, the Near East, the Indian subcontinent, and Western Europe. Handaxes of flint were usually made from flatter nodules or tabular pieces, while many handaxes and cleavers of lava and quartzite were made from large flake blanks struck from large boulder cores. Later Acheulean sites often show evidence for better-made, more standardized retouched forms such as side-scrapers.

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A fine quartzite handaxe from the site of Kalambo Falls, Zambia, about 400,000 years old.
Credit: Photo by Kathy Schick, courtesy of the Stone Age Institute. All rights reserved.


Such well-made handaxes and other artifacts are found, for example, at sites in Western Europe (St. Acheul, France; Boxgrove, England; San Isidro in Spain) , the Near East (Tabun in Israel), and Africa (Kalambo Falls, Zambia; Cave of Hearths, South Africa) dating to approximately 500,000 to 250,000 years ago. At the site of Boxgrove in southern England, excavators uncovered several antler and bone soft hammers that would have been used to make such refined tool forms, along with a number of very finely-made, symmetrical handaxes.


A sense of aesthetics is an important part of the modern human condition. We can trace the beginnings of such aesthetic appreciation to the time of the later handaxe-makers.


This is a Wikipedia webpage about the Acheulean handaxe.

This LiveScience article is about the discovery of a 1.76 million-year-old Acheulean hand axe found at Lake Turkana, Kenya.

This is a Discovery News article about the use of hand axes in Europe as early as 900,000 years ago.

This is a National Geographic article about the stone tool evidence for the earliest hominin occupation of England.

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