The spotty Acheulean

Scott and Gibert report in today’s Nature on the “oldest handaxes” in Europe:

In Africa, large cutting tools (hand-axes and bifacial chopping tools) became part of Palaeolithic technology during the Early Pleistocene (1.5Myr ago). However, in Europe this change had not been documented until the Middle Pleistocene (<0.5 Myr ago). Here we report dates for two western Mediterranean hand-axe sites that are nearly twice the age of the supposed earliest Acheulian in western Europe. Palaeomagnetic analysis of these two sites in southeastern Spain found reverse polarity magnetozones, showing that hand-axes were already in Europe as early as 0.9Myr ago. This expanded antiquity for European hand-axe culture supports a wide geographic distribution of Palaeolithic bifacial technology outside of Africa during the Early Pleistocene.

The “Anthro 101” version of the Acheulean makes it out to be a million-year-long technological yawn. The breakthrough of the first handaxes 1.5 million years ago led to a stultifying stasis. The handaxe was a “Paleolithic pocket knife” useful for many purposes – but the advent of Levallois manufacture around 300,000 years ago consigned the handaxe to the midden of history. Except, of course, for scattered, benighted peoples who were still using handaxes up into historic times – the exceptions proving the rule of bifaces’ never-ending utility.

Well, the Acheulean was boring, but it wasn’t uniform. The Anthro 101 version makes Acheulean people sound too accomplished – like they invented the bifaces and then started turning them out like industrial robots for a million years.

Not so: Fine, finished bifaces tend to be less than 500,000 years old. They also tend to be European. Acheulean people didn’t usually carry rock very far. With more sources of chert and flint, Europe’s geology allowed a wider selection of fine handaxes than Africa’s. That is, at least after 500,000 years ago or so. Before then, there just weren’t very many handaxes in Europe.

Here, Scott and Gibert suggest that maybe some other sites with “advanced” or “terminal” Acheulean may prove to be earlier than people now think. The two sites in this study were both initially thought to be much later – for example:

The youthful age (200kyr old) assumed for Solana del Zamborino was largely based on its well-developed Acheulian lithic typology. Such a young age contrasts with our continuing lithostratigraphy and palaeoclimate research in the region, which indicates a final, major lake-forming event near the end of the Early Pleistocene (starting 800kyr ago) and deposition terminating in the Baza Basin (600kyr ago).

They could well be right – some European sites now thought to be late (post-500 kyr) might be earlier. What does that mean for our understanding of the Acheulean?

Lower Pleistocene Europeans sometimes made finished bifaces, these were initially sporadic, and later became more and more common until the advent of Middle Paleolithic technocomplexes. The sporadic appearance suggests that people could live without handaxes, and that they were simple enough to be repeatedly invented. There’s just not that much information content there, and groups of Early to Middle Pleistocene people arrived at the same solutions again and again.

Technological “progress” is a misnomer before around 300,000 years ago. Early Homo made Oldowan (and Oldowan-like) industries that required few capabilities not mastered routinely by wild chimpanzees. Some, sure, but few. Bifaces require a bit more: a spatial conception of symmetry, longer action sequences. But Early and Middle Pleistocene people didn’t carry it off all the time; they kept losing the biface outside Africa. And they kept hitting that biface mode. Curious.

Other entries of interest:

“Early Malaysian axes

And then there was Levallois

How monolithic was the Acheulean?

Acheulean endings


Scott GR, Gibert S. 2009. The oldest hand-axes in Europe. Nature 461:82-85. doi:10.1038/nature08214