|From: “The characteristics and chronology of the earliest Acheulean at Konso, Ethiopia,” by Yonas Beyene et al.
PNAS, published online before print January 28, 2013, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1221285110
I hafta hand it to the early stone age archaeologists and their enablers. They persist in identifying artifacts such as the one shown above as “tools” [in this case a hand axe] without ever having demonstrated that these artifacts were used as tools. It’s the conventional wisdom. Who can blame them? The latest voodoo archaeology comes to us from the pages of PNAS, in an article claiming the earliest Acheulean assemblages ever discovered—1.75 Ma! That’s a fab result on the dating side, but not so much on the artifact typology side. [You might have expected me to say as much.]
In the case of the unit shown above, it’s a wee bit of a reach to call this a ‘hand’ axe. It might better be described as a two-handed axe or, perhaps, a two-fisted axe. Or, better still: a mangler. It’s on the large side, it seems to me, to have been used one-handed. Most of the other so-called hand axes illustrated in the Bayene et al. article are similarly size grande, as are the so-called cleavers and picks. The image below is a montage that I made from three of Beyene et al.’s figures. I’ve adjusted their sizes to present them at the same scale [plus or minus my ability to observe when the red smudges lined up in the three photographs]. I’ve also oriented them with what I infer is the distal [or bulb of percussion] end of the original flake at the bottom.
I’ve chosen to present these artifacts in this way so it might be easier for the reader to observe that the range of variation in dorsal outline amongst these three classifications—‘hand axe,’ ‘cleaver,’ and ‘pick’—could easily be a function of the number of times the original flake was whacked, as opposed to the ultimate intention. For example, if the so-called handaxes in the top row were in fact just cores, it’s easy to see how one attempt more or less to remove useful flakes could easily result in a shape that would be considered more like a cleaver or a pick. I’d love to see those inevitable lumps of bifacially flaked rocks from Konso that the excavators didn’t view as ‘tools.’ I’m fairly certain they were there, and sufficiently amorphous that they were simply deemed cores and not tools. They would very likely fill in the gaps in the range of shapes, producing a continuum from discoid through to pick-oid.
In the past I’ve received a little back-chat having to do with the Oldowan classification, which still retains the vestiges of the formed tool paradigm. I think it’s fair to say that those classifications are still present in the minds of lower palaeolithic archaeologists. To give you an idea of how far back in time such categories as handaxe, cleaver and pick are pushed, have a look at the illustration below, from CJ Lepre, et al. “An earlier origin for the Acheulian.” Nature 477(7362):82-5, . 2011. doi: 10.1038/nature10372. I’m fairly sure that to call this assemblage Acheulean is a bit fantastic.
“Partial crude handaxe? You’ve gotta be joking! Pick-like tool?? Then another partial crude handaxe!? This was the best they could come up with as examples of the Acheulean at 1.76 Ma? No wonder Beyene et al. are a little suspicious of Lepre et al.’s characterization of the Kokiselei assemblage as Acheulean. If this is the best they’ve got… they really have no leg to stand on. From what their readers are presented, there’s nothing here but a few Oldowan cores. The point here is that the archaeologists imbued these crudely flaked lumps of rock with the finished artifact paradigm that permeates the post-Oldowan periods, and as a result they’ve fallen prey to their own presuppositions.
I’m going to stop now. Cross your fingers that the next Very Important Article that comes within my sight has something to do with an area and a time other than the Pleistocene of Africa and Asia.