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33688Re: [AAT] He: hand axes

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  • Pauline M Ross
    Feb 5, 2006
      [Resending - this doesn't seem to have got through the first time]

      On Fri, 3 Feb 2006 12:34:13 -0300, "Gerard Michael Burns"
      <gmburns@...> wrote:

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

      Hey, I never get mad at anyone presenting a reasoned argument from the
      evidence :-)
      >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.

      Well, in his definition of 'local material', he says that "the vast
      majority of handaxes were made of local material" (ie up to 40 km from
      the source), but let's not quarrel over his use of words. Many
      handaxes are found "at the source", others are found up to 40 km away,
      so we can perhaps agree that, even if many, or even most, are found at
      source, at least some were transported up to 40 km, either as unworked
      cobbles, or partly or wholly worked artefacts.

      >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.

      I don't know about 'never' and 'always', but the evidence I have seen
      certainly supports the situation you describe in general. I agree this
      is difficult to explain in any other way.

      >> 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?

      There is microwear analysis consistent with use as butchery tools and
      also for woodworking. Nevertheless, large numbers (possibly most, I
      don't have numbers on this) were never used at all, despite having
      good sharp edges, and this is clearly inconsistent with the idea that
      they were *intended* as cutting tools. But, as you say, anything with
      a sharp edge may be used at some stage, but I agree that the flakes
      were the preferred cutting tools (well, even Homo erectus was surely
      too smart to design a hand-held cutting tool with a sharp edge all the
      way round).

      >> 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

      Yes, very true, but I was thinking more of William Calvin's proposed
      type of early hunting, where you get up a tree at a waterhole or river
      crossing and wait for a herd of something-or-other to mill about
      underneath, then you lob branches or sharp stones into the pack; with
      luck, one or two individuals will be hit, will buckle at the knees and
      get trampled in the ensuing panic. It seems plausible, and certainly a
      stone sharpened all the way round would be much more effective than a
      flake or Oldowan-type tool.

      >> 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.

      >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

      OK, fair point.

      >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.

      To my mind, this is the most compelling argument in favour of Baker's
      line. If, after so many years of trying, no one has found a convincing
      use for handaxes, maybe there simply isn't one.

      > 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.

      With *all* the finds? Have a look at this site:


      After a short preamble (assuming, naturally, that handaxes are
      intentionally designed objects :-), it consists of a large number of
      photos and drawings of various handaxes. It is clear that they vary
      widely, and while there are many that look as if usable flakes have
      been knapped off and they were then just discarded, many have a
      remarkable degree of symmetry and look (to me) as if smaller flakes
      have been removed round the edges to produce the symmetry. The last
      two photos are particularly striking illustrations of what I mean.

      >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

      Yes, indeed. We always carry our own culture with us. Look at all
      those man-the-mighty-hunter, killer-ape and
      bipedalism-to-provision-the-waiting-female theories from a few decades
      ago, which fitted right in with the prevailing (Western) social

      There is no doubt that it has been *assumed* for many years that
      handaxes are intentionally designed artefacts, and the few who
      disagreed with that were perhaps pursuing their own agenda. Davidson
      and Noble, for instance, were leading proponents of the
      revolution-at-40kya theory, and cognitively advanced Homo erectus
      designing aesthetically pleasing handaxes didn't fit that idea at all.

      Don't misunderstand me, I like Baker's work very much, and I think it
      does answer some of the really puzzling questions about handaxes: the
      tear-drop shape, for example, why many were never used, and why many
      were found at source but with no debitage.

      If you asked 100 experienced knappers to produce as many usable flakes
      as possible from a large cobble, I can well believe that the resultant
      cores would be readily identifiable as handaxes, and could comfortably
      sit alongside any museum's collection.

      However, I find it more difficult to believe that *all* discovered
      handaxes were produced simply by knapping off flakes until no more
      could be made. Some of them are just too symmetrical for that to be
      plausible. But there does seem to be evidence of a progression from
      the roughly produced to the more 'perfected' form, and I would be
      happy to accept that handaxes *originated* as the byproduct of flake
      production, but that later producers sometimes tinkered with them to
      enhance the symmetry.

      Pauline Ross
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