Acheulean (/əˈʃuːliən/; also Acheulian and Mode II), from the
French acheuléen, is an archaeological industry of stone tool
manufacture characterized by distinctive oval and pear-shaped
"hand-axes" associated with early humans.
Acheulean tools were
produced during the
Lower Palaeolithic era across Africa and much of
West Asia, South Asia, and Europe, and are typically found with Homo
erectus remains. It is thought that
Acheulean technologies first
developed in Africa out of the more primitive
Oldowan technology as
long as 1.76 million years ago, by
were the dominant technology for the vast majority of human
1 History of research
2 Dating the Acheulean
Acheulean stone tools
Hand-axe as a left over core
Acheulean tool users
5 See also
8 External links
History of research
The type site for the
Acheulean is Saint-Acheul, a suburb of Amiens,
the capital of the Somme department in Picardy, where artifacts were
found in 1859.
John Frere is generally credited as being the first to suggest a very
ancient date for
Acheulean hand-axes. In 1797, he sent two examples to
Royal Academy in London from
Hoxne in Suffolk. He had found them
in prehistoric lake deposits along with the bones of extinct animals
and concluded that they were made by people "who had not the use of
metals" and that they belonged to a "very ancient period indeed, even
beyond the present world". His ideas were, however, ignored by his
contemporaries, who subscribed to a pre-Darwinian view of human
Later, Jacques Boucher de Crèvecœur de Perthes, working between 1836
and 1846, collected further examples of hand-axes and fossilised
animal bone from the gravel river terraces of the Somme near Abbeville
in northern France. Again, his theories attributing great antiquity to
the finds were spurned by his colleagues, until one of de Perthe's
main opponents, Dr Marcel Jérôme Rigollot, began finding more tools
near Saint Acheul. Following visits to both
Abbeville and Saint Acheul
by the geologist Joseph Prestwich, the age of the tools was finally
Louis Laurent Gabriel de Mortillet
Louis Laurent Gabriel de Mortillet described the
characteristic hand-axe tools as belonging to L'Epoque de St Acheul.
The industry was renamed as the
Acheulean in 1925.
Dating the Acheulean
Acheulean handaxe, Haute-Garonne France – MHNT
Providing calendrical dates and ordered chronological sequences in the
study of early stone tool manufacture is often accomplished through
one or more geological techniques, such as radiometric dating, often
potassium-argon dating, and magnetostratigraphy. From the Konso
Formation of Ethiopia,
Acheulean hand-axes are dated to about
1.5 million years ago using radiometric dating of deposits
containing volcanic ashes.
Acheulean tools in South Asia have also
been found to be dated as far as 1.5 million years ago.
However, the earliest accepted examples of the
known come from the
West Turkana region of
Kenya and were first
described by a French-led archaeology team. These particular
Acheulean tools were recently dated through the method of
magnetostratigraphy to about 1.76 million years ago, making them
the oldest not only in Africa but the world. The earliest user of
Acheulean tools was
Homo ergaster, who first appeared about
1.8 million years ago. Not all researchers use this formal name,
and instead prefer to call these users early
From geological dating of sedimentary deposits, it appears that the
Acheulean originated in Africa and spread to Asian, Middle Eastern,
and European areas sometime between 1.5 million years ago and
about 800 thousand years ago. In individual regions, this
dating can be considerably refined; in Europe for example, it was
Acheulean methods did not reach the continent until
around 500,000 years ago. However more recent research demonstrated
that hand-axes from Spain were made more than 900,000 years ago.
Relative dating techniques (based on a presumption that technology
progresses over time) suggest that
Acheulean tools followed on from
earlier, cruder tool-making methods, but there is considerable
chronological overlap in early prehistoric stone-working industries,
with evidence in some regions that
Acheulean tool-using groups were
contemporary with other, less sophisticated industries such as the
Clactonian and then later with the more sophisticated Mousterian,
as well. It is therefore important not to see the
Acheulean as a
neatly defined period or one that happened as part of a clear sequence
but as one tool-making technique that flourished especially well in
early prehistory. The enormous geographic spread of Acheulean
techniques also makes the name unwieldy as it represents numerous
regional variations on a similar theme. The term
Acheulean does not
represent a common culture in the modern sense, rather it is a basic
method for making stone tools that was shared across much of the Old
The very earliest
Acheulean assemblages often contain numerous
Oldowan-style flakes and core forms and it is almost certain that the
Acheulean developed from this older industry. These industries are
known as the Developed
Oldowan and are almost certainly transitional
Oldowan and Acheulean.
Acheulean stone tools
In the four divisions of prehistoric stone-working, Acheulean
artefacts are classified as Mode 2, meaning they are more advanced
than the (usually earlier) Mode 1 tools of the
Abbevillian industries but lacking the sophistication of the
(usually later) Mode 3 Middle
Palaeolithic technology, exemplified by
Mousterian industry.
The Mode 1 industries created rough flake tools by hitting a suitable
stone with a hammerstone. The resulting flake that broke off would
have a natural sharp edge for cutting and could afterwards be
sharpened further by striking another smaller flake from the edge if
necessary (known as "retouch"). These early toolmakers may also have
worked the stone they took the flake from (known as a core) to create
chopper cores although there is some debate over whether these items
were tools or just discarded cores.
The Mode 2
Acheulean toolmakers also used the Mode 1 flake tool method
but supplemented it by using bone, antler, or wood to shape stone
tools. This type of hammer, compared to stone, yields more control
over the shape of the finished tool. Unlike the earlier Mode 1
industries, it was the core that was prized over the flakes that came
from it. Another advance was that the Mode 2 tools were worked
symmetrically and on both sides indicating greater care in the
production of the final tool.
Mode 3 technology emerged towards the end of
Acheulean dominance and
involved the Levallois technique, most famously exploited by the
Mousterian industry. Transitional tool forms between the two are
Acheulean Tradition, or MTA types. The long
blades of the
Upper Palaeolithic Mode 4 industries appeared long after
Acheulean was abandoned.
As the period of
Acheulean tool use is so vast, efforts have been made
to classify various stages of it such as John Wymer's division into
Early Acheulean, Middle Acheulean, Late Middle
Acheulean and Late
Acheulean for material from Britain. These schemes are normally
regional and their dating and interpretations vary.
In Africa, there is a distinct difference in the tools made before and
after 600,000 years ago with the older group being thicker and less
symmetric and the younger being more extensively trimmed.
The primary innovation associated with
Acheulean hand-axes is that the
stone was worked symmetrically and on both sides. For the latter
reason, handaxes are, along with cleavers, bifacially worked tools
that could be manufactured from the large flakes themselves or from
Tool types found in
Acheulean assemblages include pointed, cordate,
ovate, ficron, and bout-coupé hand-axes (referring to the shapes of
the final tool), cleavers, retouched flakes, scrapers, and segmental
chopping tools. Materials used were determined by available local
stone types; flint is most often associated with the tools but its use
is concentrated in Western Europe; in Africa sedimentary and igneous
rock such as mudstone and basalt were most widely used, for example.
Other source materials include chalcedony, quartzite, andesite,
sandstone, chert, and shale. Even relatively soft rock such as
limestone could be exploited. In all cases the toolmakers worked
their handaxes close to the source of their raw materials, suggesting
Acheulean was a set of skills passed between individual
Some smaller tools were made from large flakes that had been struck
from stone cores. These flake tools and the distinctive waste flakes
Acheulean tool manufacture suggest a more considered
technique, one that required the toolmaker to think one or two steps
ahead during work that necessitated a clear sequence of steps to
create perhaps several tools in one sitting.
A hard hammerstone would first be used to rough out the shape of the
tool from the stone by removing large flakes. These large flakes might
be re-used to create tools. The tool maker would work around the
circumference of the remaining stone core, removing smaller flakes
alternately from each face. The scar created by the removal of the
preceding flake would provide a striking platform for the removal of
the next. Misjudged blows or flaws in the material used could cause
problems, but a skilled toolmaker could overcome them.[citation
Once the roughout shape was created, a further phase of flaking was
undertaken to make the tool thinner. The thinning flakes were removed
using a softer hammer, such as bone or antler. The softer hammer
required more careful preparation of the striking platform and this
would be abraded using a coarse stone to ensure the hammer did not
slide off when struck.
Final shaping was then applied to the usable cutting edge of the tool,
again using fine removal of flakes. Some
Acheulean tools were
sharpened instead by the removal of a tranchet flake. This was struck
from the lateral edge of the hand-axe close to the intended cutting
area, resulting in the removal of a flake running along (parallel to)
the blade of the axe to create a neat and very sharp working edge.
This distinctive tranchet flake can be identified amongst
flint-knapping debris at
Acheulean sites.
Acheulean hand-axe from Egypt. Found on a hill top plateau, 1400 feet
above sea level, 9 miles NNW of the city of Naqada, Egypt.
Paleolithic. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London
Loren Eiseley calculated that
Acheulean tools have an average
useful cutting edge of 20 centimetres (8 inches), making them much
more efficient than the 5-centimetre (2 in) average of Oldowan
Use-wear analysis on
Acheulean tools suggests there was generally no
specialization in the different types created and that they were
multi-use implements. Functions included hacking wood from a tree,
cutting animal carcasses as well as scraping and cutting hides when
necessary. Some tools, however, could have been better suited to
digging roots or butchering animals than others.
Alternative theories include a use for ovate hand-axes as a kind of
hunting discus to be hurled at prey. Puzzlingly, there are also
examples of sites where hundreds of hand-axes, many impractically
large and also apparently unused, have been found in close association
together. Sites such as Melka Kunturé in Ethiopia,
Kenya, Isimila in Tanzania, and
Kalambo Falls in
Zambia have produced
evidence that suggests
Acheulean hand-axes might not always have had a
functional purpose.
Recently, it has been suggested that the
Acheulean tool users
adopted the handaxe as a social artifact, meaning that it embodied
something beyond its function of a butchery or wood cutting tool.
Knowing how to create and use these tools would have been a valuable
skill and the more elaborate ones suggest that they played a role in
their owners' identity and their interactions with others. This would
help explain the apparent over-sophistication of some examples which
may represent a "historically accrued social significance".
One theory goes further and suggests that some special hand-axes were
made and displayed by males in search of mate, using a large,
well-made hand-axe to demonstrate that they possessed sufficient
strength and skill to pass on to their offspring. Once they had
attracted a female at a group gathering, it is suggested that they
would discard their axes, perhaps explaining why so many are found
Hand-axe as a left over core
Stone knapping with limited digital dexterity makes the center of
gravity the required direction of flake removal. Physics then dictates
a circular or oval end pattern, similar to the handaxe, for a leftover
core after flake production. This would explain the abundance, wide
distribution, proximity to source, consistent shape, and lack of
actual use, of these artifacts.[additional citation(s) needed]
Mimi Lam, a researcher from the University of British Columbia, has
Acheulean hand-axes became "the first commodity: A
marketable good or service that has value and is used as an item for
Afro-Eurasia showing important sites of the
The geographic distribution of
Acheulean tools – and thus the
peoples who made them – is often interpreted as being the result of
palaeo-climatic and ecological factors, such as glaciation and the
desertification of the Sahara Desert.
Biface from Saint Acheul
Acheulean stone tools have been found across the continent of Africa,
save for the dense rainforest around the
River Congo which is not
thought to have been colonized by hominids until later. It is thought
that from Africa their use spread north and east to Asia: from
Anatolia, through the Arabian Peninsula, across modern day Iran
and Pakistan, and into India, and beyond. In Europe their users
Pannonian Basin and the western Mediterranean regions,
modern day France, the Low Countries, western Germany, and southern
and central Britain. Areas further north did not see human occupation
until much later, due to glaciation. In Athirampakkam at
Tamil Nadu the
Acheulean age started at 1.51 mya and it is also prior
North India and Europe.
Until the 1980s, it was thought that the humans who arrived in East
Asia abandoned the hand-axe technology of their ancestors and adopted
chopper tools instead. An apparent division between
Acheulean tool industries was identified by Hallam L. Movius, who
Movius Line across northern India to show where the
traditions seemed to diverge. Later finds of
Acheulean tools at
South Korea and also in
Mongolia and China, however, cast
doubt on the reliability of Movius's distinction. Since then, a
different division known as the
Roe Line has been suggested. This runs
across North Africa to
Israel and thence to India, separating two
different techniques used by
Acheulean toolmakers. North and east of
the Roe Line,
Acheulean hand-axes were made directly from large stone
nodules and cores; while, to the south and west, they were made from
flakes struck from these nodules.
Biface (trihedral) Amar Merdeg, Mehran, National Museum of Iran
Acheulean tool users
For further details of the known environment and people during the
Acheulean tools were being made, see
Palaeolithic and Lower
Acheulean tools were not made by fully modern humans – that is, Homo
sapiens – although the early or non-modern (transitional) Homo
sapiens idaltu did use Late
Acheulean tools, as did the
Neanderthal species. Most notably, however, it is Homo
ergaster (sometimes called early
Homo erectus), whose assemblages are
almost exclusively Acheulean, who used the technique. Later, the
Homo heidelbergensis (the common ancestor of both
Homo sapiens) used it extensively.
The symmetry of the hand-axes has been used to suggest that Acheulean
tool users possessed the ability to use language; the parts of the
brain connected with fine control and movement are located in the same
region that controls speech. The wider variety of tool types compared
to earlier industries and their aesthetically as well as functionally
pleasing form could indicate a higher intellectual level in Acheulean
tool users than in earlier hominines. Others argue that there is
no correlation between spatial abilities in tool making and linguistic
behaviour, and that language is not learned or conceived in the same
manner as artefact manufacture.
Lower Palaeolithic finds made in association with
such as the Venus of Berekhat Ram, have been used to argue for
artistic expression amongst the tool users. The incised elephant tibia
from Bilzingsleben in Germany, and ochre finds from
Duinefontein in South Africa, are sometimes cited as
being some of the earliest examples of an aesthetic sensibility in
human history. There are numerous other explanations put forward for
the creation of these artefacts, however; and there is no unequivocal
evidence of human art until around 50,000 years ago, after the
emergence of modern
The kill site at
Boxgrove in England is another famous
Up until the 1970s these kill sites, often at waterholes where animals
would gather to drink, were interpreted as being where
users killed game, butchered their carcasses, and then discarded the
tools they had used. Since the advent of zooarchaeology, which has
placed greater emphasis on studying animal bones from archaeological
sites, this view has changed. Many of the animals at these kill sites
have been found to have been killed by other predator animals, so it
is likely that humans of the period supplemented hunting with
scavenging from already dead animals.
Excavations at the
Bnot Ya'akov Bridge
Bnot Ya'akov Bridge site, located along the Dead
Sea rift in the southern
Hula Valley of northern Israel, have revealed
evidence of human habitation in the area from as early as 750,000
years ago. Archaeologists from the
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
claim that the site provides evidence of "advanced human behavior"
half a million years earlier than has previously been estimated. Their
report describes an
Acheulean layer at the site in which numerous
stone tools, animal bones, and plant remains have been found.
Only limited artefactual evidence survives of the users of Acheulean
tools other than the stone tools themselves.
Cave sites were exploited
for habitation, but the hunter-gatherers of the
possibly built shelters such as those identified in connection with
Acheulean tools at Grotte du Lazaret and Terra Amata near
France. The presence of the shelters is inferred from large rocks at
the sites, which may have been used to weigh down the bottoms of
tent-like structures or serve as foundations for huts or windbreaks.
These stones may have been naturally deposited. In any case, a flimsy
wood or animal skin structure would leave few archaeological traces
after so much time.
Fire was seemingly being exploited by Homo
ergaster, and would have been a necessity in colonising colder Eurasia
from Africa. Conclusive evidence of mastery over it this early is,
however, difficult to find.
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Acheulean in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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