Name origin

The Acheulean (French: Acheuléen) derives its name from the handaxes which the French customs officer and antiquities freak Boucher De Perthes found in massive numbers at St. Acheul and other localities in the Somme valley during the early 19th century. Because of their provenance from old river sediments which also contained remains of extinct animals like mammoths and woolly rhinos, he vigorously defended the idea that these were stone tools of primeaval man. Today, we know he was right, but at that time Boucher De Perthes, who was (in aspects rightfully) regarded as an eccentric, uncritical and overenthousiastic oddball, mainly annoyed his fellow antiquarians and geologists with his ideas. Before people like Frere (who found handaxes at amongst others Hoxne in Britain in the 18th century) and Bouches De Perthes suggested them to be stone tools, handaxes were regarded as either unusual stones, or "thunderstones" (and as such have been venerated during late prehistoric and early historic times).


A true definition of "Acheuléen" is difficult to provide. Different researchers in different parts of the world use different definitions. But in general:

Handaxes are the most conspicuous item of the Acheuléen, and indeed the word has grown to be almost synonymous with them. The classification "Acheuléen" however encompasses more than the colloquial "handaxes". The Acheuléen includes not only handaxes, but also other bifacial tools such as cleavers (a bifacial handaxe-like tool with a flat top), and picks (thick elongated trihedral tools). The latter two are important components of the African Acheuléen, but only modest components of the European Acheuléen. Usually Acheuléen assemblages also contain a suite of accompanying small tools such as notches (encoches), denticulés and scrapers and sometimes tools (?) like spheroids (enigmatic round flaked stone balls – perhaps some kind of hammerstone according to Toth and Schick).


Flint "Cordiforme Allongé" handaxe from Boxgrove, UK (at 500 000 years (OIS 13) one of the earliest European Acheulean sites. Photograph © M. Langbroek, 2000)



In Africa, the "Acheuléen" is most clearly defined. In the early days, before Mary Leakey’s monumental publications on the archaeology of Olduvai Gorge Bed I and II in the late sixties and early seventies, workers called an assemblage "Acheulean" if it contained at least 40% bifacial tools, following a typology devised by Kleindienst. While Mary Leakey initially followed this classification in her 1971 monograph on Olduvai Bed I and II, she later (1975) adjusted it. She focussed on technology in order to more clearly differentiate between her "Acheulean" and her "Developed Oldowan". The latter also has bifacial tools and even handaxes, but in modest numbers and a different technique. African workers like (the late) Mary Leakey have turned to call assemblages Acheulean if the bifacial tools are made on large flakes; if they are made on cobbles they are usually considered to belong to the Developed Oldowan.

By contrast, in Europe (where handaxes on flakes are relatively uncommon; most are made from nodules), workers tend to use a very ‘broad’ definition of simply calling an assemblage Acheuléen if bifacial tools are present, even if only in modest numbers.

While the simple Oldowan and Omo tools (see below) are part of the "Mode I" technology, Acheulean is part of the "Mode II" technology in the technological classification scheme of Clark.

The African emergence of the Acheulean, ~1.5 million years ago

The earliest stone tools known are about 2.6 million years old and consist of simple but efficient flakes of stone, and flaked stones like "choppers" and cores. They have been found at African sites such as Gona Hadar in Ethiopia, Koobi Fora and Omo (e.g. Lokalalei), and Olduvai Gorge, to name a few well known East African research areas yielding many of the earliest sites. They are usually called "Oldowan" tools (after Olduvai), while the earliest ones are sometimes also called "Omo".

Acheulean bifacial tools appear later. The earliest radiometrically well dated Acheulean is that of Konso-Gardula (Ethiopia) dated to 1.4 million years ago. Yet, some sites with some margins in their dating, most notably the Early Acheulean sites like EF-HR at Olduvai Gorge, might be even older (dates up to 1.7 million years are suggested). Some palaeoanthropologists link the emergence of the Acheulean to that of Homo ergaster (or H. erectus s.l.) at a similar age in Africa, but I suggest we should be cautious about equating tool technologies with particular hominine species.

At this early age (~1.4-1.5 million years ago), Acheulean is found in the East African Rift valley and Southern Africa, while in addition it should be noted that the Israelian site of ‘Ubeidiya in the Jordan valley also broadly dates to this time (the date is still slightly floating but at least 1 million and probably 1.4 million; the fauna of ‘Ubeidiya bears a large resemblance to that of Olduvai Gorge upper Bed II). This pretty well encompasses the whole geographic area occupied by early hominines at that time, although a slightly larger part of West Asia than the Levant might have been occupied from ~2 million years ago (e.g. Riwat, Pakistan). It broadly equates to the area featuring a combination of arid, relatively open savanna with gallery forests along drainage lines. In that area, Acheulean co-occurs with "Developed Oldowan". Developed Oldowan assemblages mainly consist of relatively simple tools like that of the earlier "Oldowan", but with generally a higher percentage of spheroids, and in addition low numbers of bifacial tools. These appear to be different from the bifacial tools of the African early Acheulean in manufacturing technique and ‘life history’:


Quartzite "Ovalaire Allongé" handaxe from North Africa, made on a large side-struck flake (photograph © M. Langbroek, 2000)


Acheulean handaxes: these are made on large, often side-struck flakes that were struck from large specially prepared ‘Boulder cores". Raw materials are often various types of basalt, but also quartzite;

Developed Oldowan handaxes: these are made from river cobbles, generally smaller, relatively thicker and less elongated than the Acheulean handaxes, and display much more secondary flaking. Jones has suggested that some of them might have undergone a round of resharpening.

Acheulean sites appear to be mainly found in a stream channel context, along drainage lines. Developed Oldowan sites are found connected to a larger variety of local environments. This differential landscape distribution can be seen at amongst others Olduvai Gorge. Olduvai consisted of a saline lake in Plio-Pleistocene times; Developed Oldowan is found along the former lakeshore, but Acheulean sites appear only about a kilometer inland, along the water streams draining into the former lake. It suggests that the differentiation between Acheulean and Developed Oldowan represents different activity facies in different landscape units, as opposed to being the tool-kits of different ‘types’ of hominines such as some workers still maintain.

Acheulean handaxes appear to have been abandoned in a very ‘fresh’ state. Developed Oldowan handaxes might have been carried around longer and have undergone a history of resharpening. Interestingly, handaxes are usually not found along with their manufacturing debris. They were apparently not made ‘on the spot’.

When about 1.2 million years ago hominines first leave the savanna environment of Africa and a small part of West Asia and first occupy Eurasia below 40 degrees latitude (East Asia, Southeast Asia and perhaps the Mediterranean fringe of Europe), they do not take the Acheulean with them. Instead, they use Mode I core-flake technologies. Apparently, the Acheulean and its encompassing subsistence strategy were useful only within a savanna type environment.

A first proliferation: ~800 000 years ago

At around 800 000 years ago, near the Brunhes-Matuyama geomagnetic polarity change, strange things appear to happen. There is a modest but interesting spread of Acheulean into areas where it does not seem to have occurred before. Suddenly, Acheulean is found in Pakistan at for example Dina and Jalalpur. It also first appears at the Moroccan coast in Northwest Africa, where it coincides with a small colonization event; this part of Africa had not been occupied by hominines before (as research by Raynal et al. has shown, the "chopping tool" cultures once thought to predate these Acheulean sites in the Casablanca area are non-existent).

At the same time, the highly unique site of Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in Israel appears to provide evidence for a new wave of immigrants from Africa: evidence comes from the tools as well as techniques (the site, investigated by Prof. Naama Goren of the Hebrew University contains very fine basalt handaxes on flakes and a very high number of basalt cleavers, some of which are made in the ‘Kombewa’ technique previously only known from East Africa).

Fine "Ovalaire" to " Ovalaire Allongé" handaxe from Boxgrove (UK, at 500 000 years (OIS 13) one of the earliest European Acheulean sites) made from a flint nodule (photograph © M. Langbroek, 2000)


A second proliferation: ~500 000 years ago

A second and major proliferation event occurs at about 500 000 years ago. It coincides with a major colonization event. Hominines as well as Acheulean for the first time appear in Northwest Europe, at sites such as Boxgrove in the UK and Cagny in the French Somme Valley. Acheulean also appears for the first time in the Southern European Mediterranean, e.g. at Fontana Ranuccio in Italy (with, highly interesting, also handaxes made from elephant bone). Perhaps at about a similar age, the Acheulean as well as hominines first appear in peninsular India. Yet, and intriguingly, the Acheulean does not make it to East Asia. Bifacial tools are known from East Asia, but as Schick has pointed out, they usually (but not always) are rather crude and more importantly: they appear to be very late. All bifacial tools from East Asia (e.g. Dincun in China, Chongok-Ni in Korea, handaxes from Mongolia and the Pacitanian from Indonesia) appear to date from the latest Middle or Late Pleistocene or even Holocene; not earlier. This is the time that in Europe and Africa, the Acheulean is starting to disappear from the scene. The recently proposed early age of ~800 000 years for the sites with bifacial tools in the South Chinese Bose (Baise) basin are unreliable. It is based only on associated tektites that like almost all tektites in similar stratigraphical settings from the Southeast Asian mainland are probably not stratigraphically in situ.

There are a few technological differences between the Middle Pleistocene Acheulean bifaces from Europe and the earlier ones from Africa: the European bifaces are usually (but not always) made from flint, and knapped from nodules. Cleavers as well as handaxes on flakes are sometimes present but not as prominently as in Africa.

Again, handaxes are never found with their manufacturing debris; although such handaxe manufacturing debris is found with handaxes at several sites (e.g. Boxgrove, or Cagny Ferme de l’Epinette)….it never fits to the handaxes present! Handaxes appear to have been highly mobile items, and part of a complex system of phased production and transport.

Somewhere around 200 000 to 150 000 years ago, the Acheulean proper disappears. Small handaxes belonging to the Mousterien de Tradition Acheuléene (MTA), made by Neandertals are not regarded as belonging to the Acheulean.

The function(s) of handaxes

Handaxes are not axes. They were not hafted (contrary to many cartoon depictions), and there’s no evidence that they were used to cut trees. What their function was, was mysterious for a long time. In essence it still is, but evidence is now building that they functioned primarily as butchery tools. This is shown by use-wear studies on handaxes from Europe, e.g. handaxes from Hoxne (by Keeley) and Boxgrove (by Mitchel) which shows that they display use-wear traces compatible with use in butchery. Experiments with replicas, e.g. by Jones at Olduvai, have shown that they are very efficient indeed for this purpose. Finally, some evidence that the Early African handaxes probably functioned in connection to carcass procurement tasks comes by inference from their landscape distribution.

Yet, not everybody agrees. According to Davidson and Noble, handaxes were a bifacial type of core, used to produce serviceable flakes, and not a ‘tool’. More romantic c.q. weird suggestions have also been supplied. For example, Calvin and O’Brien have suggested that they were used as throwing projectiles – some kind of ‘killer frisbees’ as some have called it, intended to knock down an animal when a biface was thrown spinning into a herd. The perhaps most mind-teasing suggestion was recently published by Kohn and Mithen. They think handaxes might have served a role in sexual selection. They infer this from some characteristics of handaxes –that they appear to emphasize a symmetrical shape, and that some of them are very large, that they often are discarded in pristine condition, and that sometimes they occur together in large numbers. They liken handaxes to peacock’s tails: display items intended to communicate a visible message to females about genetic fitness. If you were a Pleistocene hominine able to produce a large symmetric handaxe this meant (according to Kohn and Mithen) that you are genetically fit and therefore a desirable mating partner. They envision how the knapping of handaxes was watched by females: the males producing the best symmetrical handaxes got most reproductive opportunity (if you are interested in the details: see Antiquity of September 1999!). While amusing, and while the idea of stone tools having something to do with sexual selection (although difficult to test) should be entertained, this hypothesis for handaxes in my view is contradicted by several of the empirical elements concerning the Acheulean of both Early Pleistocene Africa and Middle Pleistocene Europe.

© 2000/2001/2003 by Marco Langbroek