Experimental archaeology and the functional efficiency of Acheulean handaxes


Acheulean handaxeThe Acheulean handaxe has been described as the enigma of the Lower Palaeolithic and has been the source of widespread debate since it was first generally accepted as a prehistoric artefact over 150 years ago. Although it has commonly been proposed as a heavy duty butchery tool, its distinctive morphology, often exhibiting a high degree of symmetry, appears to be over-engineered for this purpose alone. Renewed interest in the handaxe over the last few years has focused upon this issue of symmetry, variously suggesting that the symmetry has a role in increasing the efficiency of the handaxe as a butchery tool, is a by-product of raw material type and source, has a role in social or sexual display, or indicates the existence of a nascent aesthetic sense in Early and Middle Pleistocene hominins (White 1998, McPherron 2000, Pelegrin 1993, Edwards 2001, Gamble 1999, Kohn and Mithen 1999, Mitchell 1996).

Experimental Methodology

Butchery using handaxeIn September 2005 a course of experimental archaeology was undertaken with the aim of providing a dataset which could be used to test the relationship between handaxe effectiveness for butchery and a range of morphological variables including frontal and side symmetry. Funded by a grant from the British Academy the experiments involved the butchering of 30 fallow deer carcasses with 60 handaxes of varying degrees of symmetry. Video footage of the experiments allowed an objective assessment of effectiveness using a range of time proxies and the butchers, a professional butcher and a Lower Palaeolithic archaeologist, scored the handaxes on a range of ordinal scales related to their effectiveness as a butchery tool and ease of use. Finally, a verbatim record of the butchers' comments was recorded which provided valuable information regarding the dynamic relationship between the user and his tool.

Results & Preliminary Conclusions

The experiments resulted in over 18 hours of video footage enabling the creation of a large dataset which not only allowed the relationship between symmetry and effectiveness to be considered but has the potential to support further work relating handaxe effectiveness to issues of edge morphology and degree of knapping. Further, the verbatim record, in combination with the statistical analysis, suggested that the overall form of a handaxe is the result of a complex range of factors relating to both its subsistence function, the characteristics of the maker/user and the wider social and ecological context in which the individual exists.

Download movie clips - right click link and 'save target as'
  Skinning sequence  (10MB Quicktime Movie)
  Butchery sequence (10MB Quicktime Movie)


For further details, please contact either Anna Machin or Dr Rob Hosfield.


  • Edwards, S.W. 2001. A modern knapper's assessment of the technical skills of the Late Acheulean biface workers at Kalambo Falls. In J.D Clark (ed.) Kalambo Falls Prehistoric Site III: 605-611. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Gamble, C.S. 1999. The Palaeolithic Societies of Europe. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Kohn, M. & Mithen, S. 1999. Handaxes: products of sexual selection? Antiquity 73: 518-526.
  • McPherron, S.P. 2000. Handaxes as a measure of the mental capabilities of early hominids. Journal of Archaeological Science 27: 655-663.
  • Mitchell, J.C. 1996. Studying biface utilisation at Boxgrove: Roe deer butchery with replica handaxes. Lithics 16: 64-69.
  • Pelegrin, J. 1993. A framework for analysing prehistoric stone tool manufacture and a tentative application to some early stone tool industries. In A. Bethelet & J. Chavaillon (eds.) The Use of Tools by Human and Non-human Primates: 301-317. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
  • White, M.J. 1998. On the significance of Acheulean bifaces variability in Southern Britain. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 64: 15-44.

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