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Hand axe

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Acheulean hand axes from Kent. The types shown are (clockwise from top) cordate, ficron and ovate. The two lower axes are reduced in scale.
Hand axe from Um-Quatfa
Gray's Inn Lane Hand Axe
Gray's Inn Lane Hand Axe.jpg
Pointed flint hand axe from Gray's Inn Lane, London
Size 165 mm (6 in) long
Created 350,000 years ago
Discovered Gray's Inn Lane, London
Present location British Museum, London

A hand axe is a stone tool of the Lower (early) and Middle Paleolithic Stone Age. It was a bifacial, similar on both sides, and held in the hand, not with a handle like a modern axe. It was held directly in the hand, perhaps wrapped in a piece of leather.

This kind of axe is typical of the Acheulean and the Mousterian cultures, and is the longest-used tool of human history. Hand axes were certainly used for at least a million and a half years. They were made by earlier species of man, such as Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal Man); it was one of their most important tools. The hand axe cultures were preceded by an even older Oldowan culture of primitive stone tools (2.6 to 1.7 million years ago) in Africa.[1][2]

Lighter weight hand axes were also made by our own species, Homo sapiens, but we moved on to create a much wider range of tools.

History and distribution

The Gray's Inn Lane Hand Axe is a pointed flint hand axe. It was found buried in gravel under Gray's Inn Road, London, by pioneering archaeologist John Conyers in 1679. It is now in the British Museum.[3] The hand axe is a fine example from about 350,000 years ago, in the Paleolithic period.

Hand axes were the first prehistoric tools to be recognized as such. The first published drawing of a hand axe was by John Frere, and appeared in a British publication in 1800.[4]

Hand axes are found mainly in Africa, Europe and Northern Asia, while South Asia retained flake-industries.

New archaeological evidence from Baise, Guangxi, China shows that there were occasional hand axes in eastern Asia. However, as the reference shows,[5] the artifacts were overwhelmingly choppers and flakes. The authors say "The stone tool assemblage shows close associations with the Pebble tool industry... in South China".[5]

A line known as the Movius Line divides the Old World into two parts: to the west are the hand axe areas, and to the east are the chopper or flak-and-chip areas. It is supposed that there were at least two different cultural traditions.


High-quality tools recovered from Boxgrove quarry, Made c. 500,000 years ago, they are attributed to either Homo heidelbergensis or early H. neanderthalensis.

Older hand axes were produced by direct percussion with a stone hammer and can be distinguished by their thickness and a sinuous border. Later Mousterian handaxes were produced with a soft billet of antler or wood and are much thinner, more symmetrical and have a straight border.

An experienced flintknapper needs less than 15 minutes to produce a good quality hand axe. A simple hand axe can be made from a beach pebble in less than 3 minutes.

Raw materials

Hand axes are mainly made of flint, but rhyolites, phonolites, quartzites and other rather coarse rocks were used as well. It depends what rocks were available in the vicinity. Obsidian was rarely used, because it is not widely found. It produces a brilliant blade, but shatters more easily than flint.


Several basic shapes, like cordate, oval, or triangular have been distinguished, but their significance is not agreed upon.


Hand axes were no doubt a multi-purpose tool. Research on their cutting edges has shown that, in many cases, they were used for butchering meat. This would include extracting bone marrow (which would explain the pointed end) and general hacking through bone, muscle and tendons. Experiments at Boxgrove quarry would appear to back this up. We know for sure that Neanderthals, at least, were hunters of large mammals such as mammoths, and that may be true of other hand axe cultures. The need for such a heavy tool is thus easily understood. Wielding a hand axe requires considerable strength, but Neanderthals were stronger than us in their upper bodies.

Studies in the 1990s at Boxgrove, in which a butcher attempted to cut up a carcass with a hand axe, showed that the hand axe was perfect for getting at the bone marrow, which is high in protein and vitamins and thus was highly prized as a food source.[6][7]


  1. Callow P. 1994. The Olduvai bifaces: technology and raw materials. In M.D. Leakey & D.A. Roe (eds) Olduvai Gorge vol 5. Cambridge. p235-253.
  2. Kuman K. 1996. The Oldowan Industry from Sterkfontein: raw materials and core forms. In: R. Soper & G. Pwiti (eds) Aspects of African Archaeology. Papers from the 10th Congress of the Pan-African Association for Prehistory and Related Studies. Univ. of Zimbabwe Publications. Harare.
  3. British Museum (2011). "British Museum - Pointed flint handaxe". Retrieved 14 October 2011. "Gray's Inn Road, London, England This flint handaxe was found in gravel near the bones of an elephant by John Conyers in 1679."
  4. Frere, John 1800. Account of flint weapons discovered at Hoxne in Suffolk. Archeologia 13, 204-205.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Stone artifacts found from the Gonglou Site in Baise Basin, Guangxi, China [1]
  6. Bergmann C.A & Roberts M.B. 1988. Flaking technology at the Acheulean site of Boxgrove, West Sussex, England. Rev. Arch. Picardie, special number.
  7. Pitts, Michael and Roberts, Mark 1998. Fairweather Eden: life in Britain half a million years ago as revealed by the excavations at Boxgrove. London: Arrow. ISBN 978-0099644910.