STONE AGE HAND-AXES
The Pleistocene lasted from two million years ago to the present., which is called the Holocene. At the beginning of the Pleistocene primitive man was already using fire and making stone, bone, and wooden tools. By the mid-Pleistocene they were wearing animal skins scraped clean with stone scrapers, cut in straight lines with razor sharp burins, and stitched together with leather laces through holes drilled with stone bits.
The reason handaxes seem to have no specific identifiable use is probably because they served a general purpose. They could be used for cutting meat, scraping skins, chopping wood, digging holes, hammering bone or wood, and even as a last resort defense against wild animals -- perhaps sort of a Stone Age Swiss army knife. The proliferation and abundance of handaxes suggests that perhaps everyone had one, both men and women. As techniques for making handaxes slowly improved over the millennia, these same techniques would have led to new types of specialized tools, ultimately making the handaxe obsolete.
The handaxe appears almost everywhere that early man appears (see image at left), with the exception of the very far east. Ultimately the handaxe was replaced by an array of specialized tools, and may have ceased to have any value beyond that of pure tradition and culture. Perhaps every youth who came of age was given, or made, their own handaxe. Since the handaxe seems to have remained long after it became obsolete, it may have become primarily ritualistic. Some late handaxes were excellently manufactured, but seemed to receive little actual use. A number have been found that were deliberately driven point first into the ground and left, for unknown reasons.
Handaxes were known to the ancient Greeks, who believed them to be the thunderbolts thrown down by Zeus, the Tree-splitter. They were held to be sacred and were put on display in the temples, such as the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, which had two of them. These and all the sacred artifacts of the ancient world were destroyed by the Christians.
Handaxes come in many shapes and sizes, and many styles unique to cultures of specific periods and in specific geographical areas. Almost all handaxes have a point, are sized for the hand and shaped to be held. Almost no handaxes have notches for mounting. Attempts to dramatize Stone Age man as a crude and warlike savage often show handaxes mounted as oversized spearpoints. Such comic personification says more about our violent modern culture than it does about this pristine world of teenage hunters (average age 19) who spent their time on beaches and riverbanks. They rarely lived beyond the age of 35, not because of hardship, but more probably because of disease, since even minor cuts could cause fatal infections.
These youthful cavepeople made fine stone tools, works of art, and spears and arrows for hunting, but they made no weapons suitable for killing other humans until about 26-20K BC, perhaps when leaders (older males?) became predominant. People of the stone age enjoyed abundant game during warmer climates, hunting many species to extinction. They had the time to create the most excellent stonework and wall paintings, circa 100,000 - 20,000 BCE. The quality of stone age art (see these examples) has not been exceeded even today -- only our technology has improved.
Below are some new handaxe photos including some submitted by readers. These are provided without attempting to date them.
Handaxe found on a farm along with other tools in Tsitsikamma, South Africa, by Andre Terblanche, who provided the image. Probably Late Acheulian.
Large handaxes from Britain (?) shown in the palms of Karla Coppendale, a girl about 5 feet tall, or about the size of a tall stone age man. Probably Late or Middle Acheulean. Submitted by Neil Coppendale.
Large Acheulian handaxe from area of Thames, England. Early Acheulian, about 350,000 BC. Photo provided by David Clarke.
Large ovate Early Acheulian handaxe from Broom in Devon, England. Photo provided by David Clarke.
Large Aurignacian handaxe. Image provided by John Geite of Wilmington, England.
Large handaxe (7 inches long x 4 inches wide, 2.5 inches thick) from Saudi Arabia. Location: 20 Km west of ER-Raida. N 20 18' 30" E 46 28' 55". Image provided by John Geite of Wilmington, England.
Large oblate Aurignacian handaxe. Image provided by John Geite of Wilmington, England.
Handaxes from prehistoric Egypt. Lower Paleolithic circa 300,000 - 100,000 BC or Middle Paleolithic 90,000 BC. From the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
Flint handaxes from prehistoric Egypt. Lower Paleolithic circa 300,000 - 90,000 BC. From the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
Handaxes from prehistoric Egypt. Lower Paleolithic or Middle Paleolithic. From the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
Large handaxes from the Lower Paleolithic to the Middle Paleolithic. From the Milwaukee Public Museum.
Large Acheulian handaxes from the New York Natural History Museum.
Large Acheulian handaxe from bank of the river Thet near the village of Bridgham in Norfolk, England. The handaxe is 9 cm long and 7 cm at its widest point, down to 2 cm at it thinest, the depth is at its max 4 cm. Appears to be made from Black Flint mined locally at Grimmes Graves approximately 7 miles away from the site. Found and submitted by Dennis Mapletoft.
Large 7-1/2" Acheulian handaxe from El Mrayer, east of Mauritania. Image provided by Roger Gidney.
Special Note To all those who sent photos: If you were told the images would be put online, please contact me again. A computer disaster wiped out most of my emails and attached images.