Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

33661Re: [AAT] He: hand axes

Expand Messages
  • Gerard Michael Burns
    Feb 3, 2006
      ----- Original Message -----
      From: "Pauline M Ross" <pmross@...>

      > On Wed, 1 Feb 2006 15:33:39 -0300, "Gerard Michael Burns"
      > <gmburns@...> wrote:
      >>> - I would question his assertion that handaxes "were found at their
      >>> quarry (material source)", when he defines 'local' as less than 40 km.
      >>> That's too great a distance to claim the material is at source.
      >>Local and "source" are two different things. I don't recall if he stated
      >>badly or not, but from other sources I know that some sources for the
      >>appropriate rocks are literally littered with cores, some only minimally
      > I would agree that, in common sense terms, 'local' and 'source' are
      > two different things. 'Source' must surely be the exact location where
      > the material is found naturally, or somewhere very close, while
      > 'local' is somewhat broader.
      > But he explicitly conflates the two things. He says in the same
      > paragraph: "... I define a lithic container as '...a core of *local*
      > material, which means it is found at the *quarry*...' " and, while
      > asserting that a handaxe is indeed a lithic container "... [the
      > Acheulean handaxe] is a crude, early stage biface found at the
      > *source* of the lithic material...".
      > Maybe he expresses it badly, but the clear interpretation I derive
      > from the whole paragraph is that 'local', 'quarry' and 'source' are to
      > him (essentially) the same thing, and elsewhere he defines 'local' as
      > 40km or less. That is what I dispute (not his definition of local,
      > which is a matter of personal judgment, but the jump from 'quarry' and
      > 'source' to 'local' and therefore up to 40 km from the actual source).

      Hi Pauline,

      Please don't get mad at me, but I have to utttterrrly go after everything
      you have said.

      Okay, maybe he didn't explain this as clearly as you would have liked, but
      he did specifically define what he meant by "local material", and then _did
      not_ use "local", but "at the source" to describe where many Achulean
      handaxes are found. In any case, as in the example I posted from another
      writer, there are supposed to be quite a few cases where large numbers of
      "handaxes" are found right in the midst of the same cobbles from which they
      were manufactured. This is almost impossible to explain except as per Baker.
      In other sources, I have read that these "handaxes" are nonetheless
      _"never"_ found with their own manufacturing "debris" (which would be the
      flakes), meaning either that the flakes were carried off by the
      manufacturer, or else that they were _always_ very cleanly washed away by
      some natural process.

      > The impression I got is that he is trying to support his thesis that
      > Homo erectus simply went to a source of suitable material, produced
      > the required flakes in situ, abandoned the used core (handaxe) and
      > then moved on carrying the flakes.
      > I don't find that very plausible. Clearly some sites fall into that
      > category, but equally clearly there are other places where handaxes
      > (whether as raw material or finished tools) were carried in from some
      > distance away (up to 40km by his own description).

      Baker very explicitly says that the "handaxes" are often found up to 40km
      from the site of manufacture (but almost never any further), which is what
      he means by "local". (Note: if the handaxes themselves were the valued tool
      produced by hours of knapping, it would seem odd that they were not
      routinely carried however far the individuals might roam, and passed down
      generation to generation so that a handaxe "manufactured" in one place could
      easily end up many hundreds of miles away a hundred years later). And Baker
      does not say that He always did anything. I am sure he doesn't discuss the
      transported handaxes much because it is so easy to see why that would still
      be consistent with his thesis: the cobbles that are ideal as raw material
      are as common as dirt in some places, and not common in others, and the
      flakes derived from them have a short useful life as cutting or scraping
      tools, and are easily lost (but easily replaced if you have a core),
      especially if pockets haven't been invented yet. It is simpler to take a
      core back to where you live and hunt, and exploit it as necessary, than to
      have to travel to the streambed you got the cobble from from every time you
      kill something. Of course, if you happen to live by such a streambed, or if
      that's where you usually succeed in killing something, then you will tend to
      make your tools at need and leave the raw materials (the cores) lying
      around, since they are plentiful there, and are not going to be stolen. At
      the same time, flaking is most easily done from a partially exploited core
      (see Baker's complete explanation of this point), and so partially exploited
      cores will be picked up and further exploited whenever they are handy,
      perhaps even thousands of years later

      > The article is a nice piece of work, and there are some interesting
      > ideas in it, but I think it is too simplistic to propose that handaxes
      > in general result from one single process or motivation.

      Not everything is simple, but some things are.

      > Some may be
      > nothing more than discarded cores, but some clearly involve more work
      > than that. Some were knapped where the source material was found, some
      > were not. Some were retouched after use.

      Fully explained above. If you live near a source, you exploit and discard
      (then reuse at need). If you live distant from a source, you carry one or
      more cores to where you live, and exploit them as long as they are workable.

      > Some were clearly used as
      > cutting tools, some were not.

      I am unaware of clear indications that handaxes were used as cutting tools.
      But since flashlights are sometimes used as hammers, and cellphones as
      doorstops, it wouldn't be remarkable, especially if you had a given core
      sitting around the cave for several months. What were they used to cut?
      Wood? Bone? Hides and meat? Other rocks? Remember that the knapping process
      itself will cause impact-type wear on some surfaces of the core, especially
      of the cores were sometimes braced against the ground, rather than held in
      the hand (this last is my supposition, not from Baker).

      > Some may have been thrown as hunting
      > tools.

      Maybe on a rare occasion, but try it. I have tried throwing rocks of this
      size and shape. They would have some effect at a range of 4-6 meters (7-8
      meters at an extreme outside), but would rarely hit hard enough to cause
      significant discomfort to anything larger than a rabbit at greater range-
      and even at 4-5 meters they won't fell most medium or large animals with any
      hint of regularity, not even a medium-sized dog (personal experience). It is
      a suicide weapon against large or medium animals, and enormously larger than
      would be best for throwing at rabbit-sized animals (rabbits can be hunted
      effectively with rocks, but best with rocks less than half the size of a

      Marc frequently mentions the case of a small child at a zoo who was struck
      by a stone accurately thrown by a chimpanzee. Marc seems to think that
      demonstrates that thrown rocks could be sufficiently accurate to have been
      used by an ancestor as a hunting weapon; HOWEVER, remember that the child
      was brought crying to the zoo's office to complain, NOT to a hospital
      emergency room or funeral parlor -in spite of the fact that chimps are
      _much_ stronger than Hs (can't speak to He, of course, but Hs also made
      handaxes, remember). In other words, the spoiled little progeny of our soft
      civilization was no more hurt than he would have been by being spanked. A
      thrown rock is not a good weapon unless you are standing in large numbers in
      a small circle at close range around a helpless animal with a guilt complex
      begging for forgiveness and mercy.

      > As with most aspects of human evolution, the real answer may
      > well turn out to be very complicated.

      Sometimes things are truly complicated, but very often things are
      complicated when you don't understand them, but simple when you do.

      > My final thought is that any thesis which rests on the premise that
      > "since there is no fossil hand evidence to suggest otherwise, my
      > theory is intact" is in a fairly precarious position.
      > --
      > Pauline Ross

      I know of no one who has advanced such a thesis. The reference to the lack
      of a hand from He is only relevant to Baker's ancillary attempt to explain
      the size differences between He handaxes and those produced by Hs. I find
      his supposition reasonable, and supportive of his general thesis, but not

      As I briefly Googled for supporting info on all this, I found numerous
      papers ecstatically analyzing the deep meaning of the symmetry found in
      many, not all, of the Achulean handaxes. However, the general consistency
      over time and space of the "design" of the "handaxes", argues much, much
      more powerfully for a mechanical imperative than for any aesthetic or
      philisophical principle. The handaxes were relatively consistent in size and
      shape across the length of three continents, FOR A MILLION YEARS. It would
      be so exceptional as to be impossible to describe for any aesthetically
      chosen design to acheive that kind of coverage. And remember, that even
      those who believe the "handaxe" to have been a purposeful tool have been
      unable to come up with a convincing use for it, and a very convincing use
      would need to exist for such incredible consistency. On the other hand, the
      symmetry of these artifacts can be easily explained as the byproduct of
      continully seeking the next flake from a core until the core becomes too
      small to be easily worked. And that explanation as being the normal origin
      of the "handaxes" is the only one consistent with all the finds.

      All the profound papers analyzing the cognition of He based on the symmetry
      of his "handaxes" are probably better evidence of our own mindset, our need
      to use stories to offer a framewrk for retaining and understanding scattered
      facts, than as evidence of what He was up to with his battered rocks. See,
      Landau: Human Evolution as Narrative, American Scientist, vol 72, pp 262-268

      Michael Burns
    • Show all 17 messages in this topic