Until the nineteenth century, most people believed humans had been living on Earth for only a few thousand years. This axe, discovered in 1859, was the first strong evidence that we have been here for much longer. It is thought to be around 400,000 years old and, since then, even older stone tools have been found in Africa providing further evidence of early human habitation.
The axe was discovered along with mammoth and rhino remains, and was probably used to prepare meat and skins.
It was found in northern France by workers mining gravel. It was photographed before it was removed from the ground, giving scientists information about its position, the type of rock it was found in and the presence of other artefacts and fossils close by. This was the first time photography was used to provide precise evidence of location within the context of an archaeological discovery.
The axe was donated to the Natural History Museum in 1896. It lay unheralded in the collections for over one hundred years but was uncovered again last year by Robert Kruszynski and Clive Gamble.