Olduvai handaxe

Contributed by British Museum

Stone hand axe from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. © Trustees of the British Museum

Image 1 of 4

This handaxe made of green volcanic lava represents a tradition of tool-making which began about 1.6 million years ago. Smaller handaxes became common handheld tools used for cutting meat or woodworking. Produced with great skill by ancestors we would recognize as becoming human, this object shows that manufactured things, sometimes of distinctive quality, were starting to be important in the evolution of our behaviour.

Humans spread out of Africa

The makers of handaxes are the first humans to spread across Africa into Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Asia. Handaxes reflect the first great spread of humankind and the establishment of a way of life in which we recognize the beginnings of our human characteristics. No other humanly made object has ever been manufactured over such a long period and before the 20th century no other object has spread over such a wide geographical area.

This handaxe is made in the outline shape of a human hand

Function, design and style in one

This artefact is one of the oldest objects in the British Museum that combines, in my view, function, design and style in one piece.

The handaxe was found in 1931 by Louis Leakey in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, and is dated to about 1.2 million years ago. It was crafted from a block of hard, green lava called phonolite by striking the edges with a round pebble. Flakes were removed from across two faces to create a carefully shaped symmetrical tool with sharp, all-round cutting edges.

Rocks like phonolite are difficult to work, and to me highlight the remarkable skills of their makers.

These hand-held tools would have been efficient for the range of tasks involved in animal butchery from slicing hide and filleting meat to disjointing carcasses. The efficiency of handaxes is reflected in their widespread use across Africa, and from a million years ago in Asia and Europe.

Handaxes were first being made in Britain some 600,000 years ago and were still being used by Neanderthals only 40,000 years ago. One mystery is how these traditions of manufacture were passed on from one generation to the next over such huge distances and vast lengths of time? Perhaps this is simply an efficient tool that was reinvented time and again.

Handaxes, however, seem to have been more than simple functional tools. Their symmetry in two, or sometimes three, planes shows a design beyond the utilitarian.

Some researchers have argued that they were status symbols, perhaps to attract mating partners or indicate power, while others have suggested that specific shapes were used to indicate group identity.

For me, these remarkable tools reveal not only the skilled craftsman, but also the appreciation of aesthetics in our earliest ancestors, and are a reflection of the thinking minds of the individuals who made them.

Nick Ashton, Curator, British Museum

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Comments

  • 10 comments
  • 1. At 04:58 on 13 April 2010, huwedges wrote:

    It's assumed throughout this programme that the Olduvai axe is a "hand-axe", and there is a suggestion that it may have been painful to use it thus, hence it may not have been made for use as a tool at all, but for display.
    As many other ancient axes are assumed to have been shafted, i.e. tied to a handle of and by organic material which rotted away long ago, why is is this mode of use not considered here?

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  • 2. At 14:22 on 19 April 2010, Jill Cook wrote:

    Huw Edges comment that if a handaxe had a wooden handle this would have decayed away leaving no trace is quite right. However, we are certain that handaxes were hand held and not hafted into handles because of their chracteristics and variety. Many are simply too large and thick to haft successfully. On most handaxes, the best working edges are along the sides and their effectiveness would be lost if the object were hafted like a true axe. Among the many small examples which could be hafted the broader ends are often unworked or, have a high-angled edge around the broader base which would not be useful as an axe edge. Using handaxes as hand tools without handles actually provides a greater range of uses. True axes which fitted into handles some of which do survive are not known until much more recently. In northwest Europe, they appear a little after 10,000 years ago when hunter gatherers needed to make clearings in the forests which developed as the climate warmed up at the end of the Last Ice Age.These look much more like modern metal axe blades although they are shaped in stone. As the first farmers made their way across Europe, true axe blades become even more common because of the need to clear land for fields. They may also have special significance as in the case of the jadite axes described in a later programme. Jill Cook Curator, British Museum.

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  • 3. At 18:15 on 29 May 2010, markalilly wrote:

    The phrase 'No humanly made object has ever been manufactured over such a long period' should read 'No humanly made object other than this one has ever been manufactured over such a long period'

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  • 4. At 13:29 on 7 July 2010, nomorefooty wrote:

    For such tools is there any evidence that they were held along with some sort of cloth material to lessen the impact that the edges would have on the user's hands? I appreciate that such material will not now exist but might be inferred from other evidence such as one side of such tools being more polished or smoother?

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  • 5. At 00:01 on 18 October 2010, StoneToolUser wrote:

    There is little evidence to suggest that "handaxes," more properly called Bifaces, were consistently used as tools. Rather experimental evidence suggests that the shape of the biface might be a byproduct of flake manufacture. The number of sharp-edged flakes that can be removed an unmodified, large flake (which is what a "handaxe" is made from) is tremendously large when compared to Oldowan technology. These bifaces may, therefore, have simply been a highly efficient and mobile source for sharp-edged flakes.

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  • 6. At 12:57 on 28 October 2010

    Failed moderation

  • 7. At 12:59 on 28 October 2010, Sami G wrote:

    The head of a spare maybe?

    Yes I did just register with the BBC to make that suggestion,
    I was listening to Sir James Dyson who suggested it was not practical as a handaxe / saw, couldn't help but imagine it being attached on the end of some striped down branch...

    Any thoughts?

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  • 8. At 13:02 on 28 October 2010, Sami G wrote:

    *The head of a spear maybe?

    Yes I did just register with the BBC to make that suggestion,
    I was listening to Sir James Dyson who suggested it was not practical as a handaxe / saw, couldn't help but imagine it being attached on the end of some striped down branch...

    Any thoughts?

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  • 9. At 13:01 on 8 November 2010, David Prudames wrote:

    @nomorefooty - Jill Cook, British Museum curator of this object, tells me that people who live their lives outdoors have much harder, calloused hands than we do so it was less of a problem. But when handaxes are made and used today a piece of soft leather is often used for protection.

    @Sami G - this could not be a spear tip because it is too big and heavy. It would never fly and even small examples are too thick and unsuitable as projectiles.

    David Prudames, British Museum

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  • 10. At 18:44 on 9 March 2011, Adrm wrote:

    The programme does suggest that the handaxe might be too big for use. This is clearly true for modern humans, but there is no discussion about which of our ancestors would have used this tool. Would it have been Homo Erectus? Homo Habilis? Might they have had bigger hands than us?

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About this object

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Location

Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania

Culture
Period

1.2 - 1.4 million years-old

Theme
Size
H:
23.8cm
W:
10cm
D:
5cm
Colour
Material

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