July 22, 2004

As I noted yesterday, the early humans of Olorgesailie knew a lot about the rocks they used in making tools. But one question I'm always asked is, how was the handaxe used? What were they used for? Many people expect me to answer with one very specific use, much as we usually use a fork or a knife for one particular purpose only. The handaxe is intriguing because the same shape of tool was made for over a million years, and we find them over wide areas of Africa, Europe and Asia - in many places where the hominins of that time had spread. You can see in the photograph how the handaxes of Africa, England and, India all have a very similar shape, even if they were made from different kinds of rocks.

Handaxes from Around the World

Yet it's become apparent during our research at Olorgesailie that handaxes had many diverse uses. One of the more interesting was as a convenient stone source for making flakes. At the elephant butchery site (Site 15, when we first excavated it some years ago), we found many flakes that had been used in butchering the elephant. The shape of these flakes and use-damage on the edges indicated that the flakes had been removed from handaxes and then used. The hominins brought the handaxes to the butchery site as a portable source of flakes, which were smaller, sharper and more useful for cutting flesh. Hardly any handaxes were left behind, but many must have been used up in the butchering process.

However, handaxes are not just sources of flakes. There were clearly shaped and kept sharpened for use. Archeologists have done experiments with handaxes (ones they've made themselves) to show that the handaxes can be very useful in heavy-duty tasks like separating joints on a carcass, cutting branches, and sharpening digging sticks.

So over the years of study at Olorgesailie, I've changed my mind from thinking of handaxes as boring tools made over and over again for one or a few limited purposes. Rather, they were really versatile tools - probably more like the Swiss Army Knife of the Paleolithic than a modern-day fork.

So handaxes were a most useful innovation. They were a convenient size to carry away from the source site, they were a useful tool in their own right, and they provided a source of sharp stone flakes. A few years ago, we excavated an Acheulean quarry site, and we found out that the handaxes were chipped and shaped right at the source. This gave the hominins the chance to test the stone for flaws that might cause it to break badly, and it gave them the opportunity to remove any excess stone they wouldn't have wanted to carry around. They left the quarry with a useful tool that provided both a cutting edge and a striking platform from which more flakes could be removed all the way around.

Because they changed very little during the first million years they were made, handaxes were thought to signify boring, unchanging behavior on the part of the hominins that made them. But now I think of this implement as "the adaptable handaxe" - a tool that really helped hominins to adapt to new environments here at Olorgesailie and wherever else they spread.