Acheulean Tools

Multi-use implements of the Lower Paleolithic

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EUGENE M. MCCARTHY, PHD

Acheulean tools
Acheulean tools (hand axes) from Kent, UK.

Acheulean biface
Quartzite biface from Atapuerca (Enlarge image)

Acheulean biface
Flint hand ax from St. Acheul (Enlarge image)

hand ax

Named for Saint-Acheul, France, one of the first sites where such implements were found, the Acheulean (/"ə-CHEW-lee-ən"/), often spelled Acheulian, is a stone tool industry characteristic of certain pre-modern (pre-Homo sapiens) human cultures.

Such tools are more sophisticated, as well as larger and heavier than, the pebble-choppers of the earlier Clactonian or Oldowan/Abbevillian industries. They were flaked not only by means of a hammer stone, but also with wood, bone, or antler shapers, which allowed greater control over the finished product. These advanced tools were shaped more symmetrically on both sides (producing a "biface") and also had chiseled edges that would have helped their makers butcher elephants and other scavenged game left behind by larger predators or even have allowed them to hunt such prey themselves.

Most paleoanthropologists think tools of this industry were typically multi-purpose implements, the same tool being used for a variety of tasks, such as butchering carcasses, slicing hides, digging roots, and chopping wood.

Radiometric dating shows this particular industry lasted from around 1.8 mya (Lepre et al. 2011; Scarre 2005, p. 110) to about 100,000 years ago (Clark 2001). The earliest tools generally accepted as examples of this type come from the region west of Lake Turkana in Kenya (Roche et al. 2003).

Very early Acheulean stone tools occur across most of Africa, except in rainforest regions. These tools have also been found throughout Eurasia, in more recent deposits south of the regions of Pleistocene glaciation. In Asia, they are known from Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, and southeast Asia. In Europe, they reached as far north as the Danube and, further west, are known from France (where tools of this industry were first recognized), as well as the lower Rhine valley and southern Britain. Further north, glaciers prevented human occupation.

Although this tool industry is most commonly associated with the names of Homo ergaster and Homo erectus, much doubt and dispute surrounds the identification of the early human specimens from the time period in question (1.8-0.1 mya). Is Homo ergaster distinct from Homo erectus? Is Homo heidelbergensis distinct from early Homo neanderthalensis? Was Homo sapiens idaltu, a user of Acheulean tools, really any different from modern Homo sapiens, usually described as using more sophisticated, better finished tools? Whatever the answers to such questions, the time period during which the Acheulean industry existed, and the type of tools it produced, is fairly well established.

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Works cited

Clark, J. D. 2001. Variability in primary and secondary technologies of the Later Acheulian in Africa. In: S. Milliken and J. D. Cook (eds.), A Very Remote Period Indeed. Papers on the Palaeolithic presented to Derek Roe. Oxford: Oxbow.

Gamble, C., Marshall, G. 2001. The shape of handaxes, the structure of the Acheulian world. In: S. Milliken and J. D. Cook (eds.), A Very Remote Period Indeed. Papers on the Palaeolithic presented to Derek Roe. Oxford: Oxbow.

Lepre, C. J., Roche, H., Kent, D. V., Harmand, S. Quinn, R. L., Brugal, J-.P., Texier, P-. J., Lenoble, A., Feibel, C. S. 2011. An earlier origin for the Acheulian. Nature, 477: 82–85. doi:10.1038/nature10372

Roche, H., Brugal, J., Delagne, A., Feibel, C., Harmand, S., Kibunjia, M., Prat, S., Texier, P. 2003. Les sites archéologiques plio-pléistocènes de la formation de Nachukui, Ouest-Turkana, Kenya: bilan synthétique 1997-2001. Comptes Rendus Palevol, 2: 663-673.

Scarre, C (ed.) (2005). The Human Past. London: Thames and Hudson.


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