Saturday, December 09, 2017


Stephen E. Nash has been raving about the Acheulean hand ax for months, thus: 
“To my mind, a well-made Acheulean hand ax is one of the most beautiful and remarkable archaeological objects ever found, anywhere on the planet. I love its clean, symmetrical lines. Its strength and heft impress me, and so does its persistence."

“Acheulean hand ax is the term archaeologists now use to describe the distinctive stone-tool type first discovered by John Frere at Hoxne, in Suffolk, Great Britain, in the late 1700s. Jacques Boucher de Perthes, a celebrated archaeologist, found similar objects in France during excavations conducted in the 1830s and 1840s. The name Acheulean comes from the site of Saint-Acheul, near the town of Amiens in northern France, which de Perthes excavated in 1859.”

He got so carried away with the unique gorgeousness of his tools that I got into an argument with him over whether they were exclusive to Europeans or also present among the stone age Native Americans.  (I have an automatic response privileging the indigenous of this continent.)

This was his answer.  I guess that the “Old World” includes Africa.  So he’s the “Euro-centric” element here.

Well, it would include them, or their ancestors at least, since, by the time the Hand Axe went out of use (c. 100,000 BP), the latter were still living in the Old World. The colonisation of the New World lay at least 80,000 years in the future.
And, of course, as the Hand Axe is found distributed throughout the Old World, "Euro-centric" would be an inappropriate adjective to use.”  

But then this particular specimen is not just useful, but quite beautiful and clearly created as an aesthetic object.

This version, transparent, reveals the flame-shape of the stone with a seashell at its heart, a stone poem.

There are some variations because every stone and every knappers’ hands are slightly different, but the shape is so basic and coherent that if it gets too far out of the pattern, it won’t be a hand-axe anymore.  Yet, since the template is the human hand, the central bulge fitting the hollow of the palm and the edge thinned just outside the fingers to form the necessary blade, even the casual observer can know how to hold it.

These specimens of pink quartz are are not hand axes 
because they are clearly designed to be attached to a shaft. 

I don't know what makes this one seem to glow from inside.

This one seems small, maybe a "lady hand axe"?

Tools of stone take a defining role in the project of rising skill and mental ability because anything else is likely to have dissolved by now.  Surely the first small inventions — rabbit snares, cooking tools, fasteners for holding hides together — were of sticks and animal parts.  Or used the earth itself, like the pits the First Peoples of the New World dug to bury roots so as to build fires on top, creating an oven.  Lined with rawhide, they became pots into which hot stones could be dropped to cook marrow out of bones.  It took a long time to realize what they were when the remnants were found at the bottom of “buffalo jumps.”  No one even noticed them enough to wonder.

Today's efforts to find such a distinct and definitive object doesn’t seem to be particularly predictable, except by predicting where they might be useful, which might have been quite different at the time they were made so long ago.  The primary use seems to have been cutting flesh for food, but what was once animal habitat might now be simply desert.  Since stone is heavy and early people probably hadn’t invented pockets, it seems to have been easier for them to knap a new tool than to carry them along, so they are scattered where they were abandoned, not stockpiled.  

For first peoples, who knew what kind of stone to use, could see how they were vulnerable to the striking that creates sharp edges where the stone is broken, and had the strong dexterous grip to hold and strike, it must have been far easier than it is for us today.  Although, I’ve heard that some knappers can chop arrowheads out of those old thick green CocaCola glass bottles.

Part of the more intellectual interest in flint-knapping is connected to the idea of finding a fault-line or shift in history that distinguishes “human” like us from “missing link” or even the other hominins, who are more like recurring emergent creatures than any chain of descent.  Chimps use sticks for tools and so do crows, so apart from the problem of survival of materials, we already have reason to discredit that particular kind of tool.  Neither animal can create a cutting edge, though they will pound something with a rock or some birds will carry hard-shelled food like oysters or clams up high enough that if they are dropped they will shatter.  That in itself means they can predict and repeat acts.

The next steps after creating cutting edges — and with obsidian as a matrix those edges can be sharp enough to do surgery better than a steel scalpel — might be fire, weaving, and beauty.  I’ve never seen an article about paint on the earliest living bodies, but, having watched children with mud or markers, I suspect it was early.  Certainly it survives even in fashion magazines, an effete recent development.  Or is it an atavistic persisting practice?

Found art like fossil iniskum (buffalo-stone shapes left by primordial sea creatures) and the rubbing of them with fat and ochre is old, a spontaneous response that invites our own sensory contact.  Everything for the autochthonous people close to the earth must have been pages of information.  The hands of the makers stored information right in their muscles and calluses, their joints and wrists, as they felt the little jolts and releases when the flakes were knocked off, saw what the symmetry was creating and the uses of the result.   When we look at these hand axes, we can't avoid seeing the ghostly hands of the makers.

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