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Lithic Technology
ISSN: 0197-7261 (Print) 2051-6185 (Online) Journal homepage:
The Acheulean Handaxe: A Maintainable
Multifunctional Tool
Milla Y. Ohel
To cite this article: Milla Y. Ohel (1987) The Acheulean Handaxe: A Maintainable Multifunctional
Tool, Lithic Technology, 16:2-3, 54-55, DOI: 10.1080/01977261.1987.11720884
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Published online: 01 Apr 2016.
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Date: 27 October 2017, At: 08:24
The Acheulean Handaxe: A Maintainable Multifunctional Tool
Milia Y. Ohel
Department of Sociology and Anthropology.
University of Haifa,
Haifa 31999, Israel6 I 87
Downloaded by [UNSW Library] at 08:24 27 October 2017
The Acheulean Handaxe has been somewhat enigmatic in
prehistoric research. This paper reviews previous ideas
and makes the case that the Acheulean Handaxe was a
maintainable, multifunctional tool.
The handaxe (or biface) is widely considered as the most
prominent and most representative of the Acheulean industrial complex. Yet the function of handaxes has been the
focus of varying views for many years (see Kleindienst and
Keller 1976 for a review).
Many former and some more recent authorities (e.g.,
Mortillet 1883: Tylor 1894; Osborn 1915; Macalister 1921;
Ponansky 1959; Oakley 1964; Bordaz 1970) contended that
the Acheulean handaxe was an all-purpose tool. Others
characterized it as a war weapon (e.g., Frere 1797; Evans
1859-both cited in Daniel1967). Still others (e.g., Clark and
Haynes 1970; Cole and Kleindienst 1974) concluded that
the handaxe was not related to butchering practices (but cf.
Oakley 1964: 22; Keeley 1980: 82, 160; Wymer 1982:
126). Cole and Kleindienst (1974: 352, 354), mentioning
also former students, thought that whereas one morphological form can hardly be called "all-purpose tool, "various
forms of handaxes may have had overlapping functional
spheres. And, more than just a few researchers (e.g.,
Vayson de Pradence 1920; Balout 1967; Bordes 1968) have
avoided discussing any functional aspects of handaxes.
Kleindienst and Keller (1976) forwarded a rather interesting idea of handaxes having had been used as anvils
stuck in the ground and fastened there by the feet while
modifying other tools upon them. However, at the end of
their discussion (p. 184) they concluded "that at present we
do not know how, or for what, handaxes and cleavers were
used". Roe (1981:74) regarded the issue as "one of the
~ore basic problems," relating that microwear analysis (by
his student, Larry Keeley) was at that time in a progressive
Keeley (1980) investigated four handaxe replicas and
three true Acheulean handaxes from Britain which met his
criteria. The former "provided to be perfectly adequate
tools for accomplishing the various tasks (digging, cutting
meat, scraping and cutting fat from a hide, and cutting
through or breaking bone joints)" (p.82). Of the latter, two
handaxes from Hoxne were used for meat cutting and
butchering, and the third from the Golf Course at Clactonon-Sea for wood polishing. On the basis of the above and
numerous experiments and analyses of other tools, Keeley
(1980) drew the following conclusions:
" ...._hand axes as a. class ... were not made for any
particular or exclusive function... but nevertheless
were made to fulfill some important but more general
purpose" (p. 160; emphasis there). And again, " ... the
advantage of the hand axe lies not in its suitability for
(Vol. 16, Nos. 2-3, 1987)
any one particular task, but in its usefulness for any
number of tasks" (p. 161; approximately the same on
p. 169). For the purpose of this note, the notion that
follows is of importance: " .. .it seems reasonable to
propose as a hypothesis that hand axes ... were implements. ~ade to be taken on hunting and gathering
expedibons away from the home base, while in the
main, flake tools provided the cutting edges 'at
home"' (p. 161; emphasis added).
~leed _(1986:~37) suggested "that guiding principles of
~ngmeenng des1gn offer potentially useful insights," and
mtroduced some concepts and terms that seemed quite
relev~t to our discussion here. First, for the matter of
func~1o~: "Systems that ~e designed to perform a range of
applications are also optionally designed to be maintainable ... (e.g., an arrow that might be used on large game
birds, or fish)'' (p. 741). Second, for the matter of find~
loc~tion: " ... hunters going after game that is continually
available but on an unpredictable schedule would optimally
be equipped with maintainable weapons"(p. 741).
I would like to support both Keeley (1980) and Bleed's
(1986~ suggestions by adding an observation of my own.
Studymg recently the Acheulean of the Yiron (0hel1986)
and Baram (Ohel 1987) Plateaux in the Upper Galilee of
Israel, I hav~ repeatedly noticed the following phenomenon. While handaxes were sometimes recovered in
~cupation sites many were found wide-ranging outside
~1tes, yet absolutely within the presumed borders of foragmg grounds. The presence of a handaxe (or many handaxes) was more revealing especially at places where no
othe~ artifact was found. In most, if not all cases, such
off-s1te handaxes were recovered at locations where no
washdowns~ de~v~tio~s, rollings, or other natural agencies
affected therr distnbution. I became convinced that one or
mor handaxes were carried by the Acheulean huntergatherers on their forays.
This spatial spread of off-site handaxes adds, I believe,
further strength to the above notions. The Acheulean handaxe was probably a maintainable, multifunctional tool carried_by the foragers, such as the bow, quiver, and spear
earned by the !Kung San, or the bow, arrow, and quiver
used by_ th_e Y~omamo. It might have served some purposes Within a s1te (even that suggested by Kleindienst and
Keller? 1976), but there, various other tools mostly functi~~-specific, w~re at hand, whereas the ~daxes' major
utility was outs1de the residential quarters.
This does not mean that every single, stray handaxe
found ~ywhere must be directly tied to the system. My
sugg~s~on here can be applicable only after the diverse
assocmtive or contextual on-site/off-site aspects are understood. When these latter are established the sometimes
"strange" locations where handaxes are soiely encountered
can be reasonably explained.
References Cited
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1967 "Procedes d'analyse et questions
de terminolgie dans I'etude des
~nse~bles industriels du Paleolithique
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Edited by W.W. Bishop and J.D. Clark,
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Bleed, P.
1986 The optimal design of hunting weapons:
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1970 Tools of the Old and New Stone Age.
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