Sheesh! Handy Items, Handaxes. Or Maybe Not. Beyene et al. and the oldest Acheulean at Konso, Ethiopia

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.

Upper row: Dorsal view of a chronological series of artifacts classified as Tools/hand axes. Earliest at left. Bottom row, from the left: Dorsal view three artifacts classified as cleavers; Dorsal view of six artifacts classified as picks (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) [scale in cm]. 

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.

Supplementary Figure 2: World’s oldest known Acheulean (ca. 1.76 Ma) from KS4, West Turkana (Kenya). Photo P.-J.Texier © MPK/WTAP, from Supp. Ref. 5. Top: Partial crude handaxe made on a flat large phonolite cobble. Middle: Pick-like tool with a trihedral section, made on a thick split phonolite pebble. Bottom: Partial crude handaxe made on a thick split phonolite pebble. From CJ Lepre, et al. “An earlier origin for the Acheulian.” Nature 477(7362), 82-5, 2011. doi: 10.1038/nature10372.

“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.

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Newly discovered hand[soap]-axe

Sure enough, another hand[soap]-axe has been discovered! The second of these beautiful implements has lately come to light, in this case raking morning sunlight. The palaeoanthropological community knows just what to make of it, too. As with it’s lithic counterparts, this must surely have been purposefully shaped by the hominid that resides with us here at Subversive Archaeologist world headquarters.

Yet, unlike the earlier discovery, pictured above, at left, this specimen is an exquisite ovoid. The ovoid is double-convex, like the first. Moreover the angle formed at the margins is identical to that of the elongated leaf-shaped original discovery? To the right in this photo is the form of raw material that occurs naturally in the vicinity. Given the clearly different outline, this latest hand[soap]-axe, assigned the label H[S]A-2 was likely used for a different function than that of H[S]A-1. Or, conversely, if there turns out to have been a temporal discontinuity between the two, it’s quite possible that the two performed the same function, but in different cultural systems. Either way, there’s no denying that the hominid soap shapers carried out an almost unbelievably complex series of attritional episodes (colloquially known as washing) in arriving at these forms. No other explanation could possibly exist for the existence of these nearly perfectly shaped pieces.
     This ‘industry’ rivals the Levallois technique for its sheer virtuosity.