Thursday 10 May 2012

Handax, Schmandax!

It's been awhile since I blurted about the completely fanciful myth of the so-called handaxe. My metaphorical slumber was interrupted the other day when I came across a really quite lovely bit of banded ironstone from South Africa's Kathu Pan (see below). Kathu Pan, you'll remember, caught my eye back in February after some rather exaggerated claims about a blade industry at a half a million years BP [about which I'll have more to say in the next day or so]. In the case of this bifacial core, the same crew is claiming perhaps the most perfectly symmetrical handax that's ever been discovered from this or any other period. 

I'll agree it's pretty, and irrefutably symmetrical, but I'm reminded of an old saw: If you have an infinite number of chimpanzees and an infinite number of typewriters, eventually you're going to find a Shakespeare sonnet amongst the infinitely large stack of incomprehensible scrabble. You are free to disagree, but if Lower and Middle Palaeolithic archaeologists ever see fit to acknowledge the full range of bifacially flaked pieces in their assemblages this most symmetrical handax EVER, would be seen for what it is--a one in a million fluke.  
     To illustrate a point [cough] that I've made before, I spent about a half-hour this morning Googling images using terms such as Acheulean handax, cleaver, pick and discoid, which if memory serves are the four official categories of Lower Palaeolithic bifaces. Half an hour! Imagine what I could show you if I had some serious time to examine every biface that ever came out of a Lower Palaeolithic site. You can see a smallish version of the collage below. If you'd care to see it a bit larger, just go here

 There are at least three kinds of variability in evidence. First is likely due to the raw material. Quartzite [thanks, IainS] doesn't release nice little flakes, so you end up with something that looks like the one shown at the middle of the right hand edge of the above array. On the other hand, micro- or cryptocrystalline material is more amenable to large and small flake removals. So you tend to see the kind of morphology exhibited in the centre left, where if you focus on the hand resting on a table you'll see the difference a fine-grained material makes. You'll also see the second kind of variability that's illustrated here--overall size. The four bifaces in this image range from palm sized to clipboard-sized dimensions. Just to show you how ridiculous this typology is, have a look at another artifact from the Kathu Pan area.
Look at the size of it! Not even as long as a ball-point pen! And don't get any ideas about it's being a 'point' because it's about as thick ventro-dorsally as it is wide from margin to margin. The wonder of it all is that no one seems to care! No one seems to notice that some of these so-called handaxes are almost too big to heft, much less wield effectively as a cutting tool. Check out the guy up above, middle right near the top. He's demonstrating exactly why the idea that any of these bifaces are finished artifacts is a laughable myth. Come on, people!
     The third kind of variability about which archaeologists are in desperate need of acknowledging is the abundance of different shapes that Lower Palaeolithic bifaces can take. Don't, please, let the old four-fold classification colour your perception. When, for instance, Louis Leakey showed up in National Geographic in the 1960s he had to give the rocks he'd found some kind of function that you and I could apprehend, and so he called some picks, some cleavers, some discoids, and some handaxes. I think you'd have to be blind or simply obstructionist to view the variability that's in evidence above as anything other than an expression of the continuous variability of Lower Palaeolithic bifaces from 'amorphous lump' to the shining example from Kathu Pan. 
     Face it! Are all of those shapes the result of mental templates in the Palaeolithic hominids' heads? You must be joking! If you persist in thinking that way, then you'll want to come up with something better than the four-fold classification with which we've all 'grown up.' Nothing short of several dozen nomina would do to describe half the variability in evidence here. And don't waste my time trying to tell me that the ones that don't fall neatly into the handax, cleaver, pick and discoid classes fail because they were imperfectly made. If you think that, you'll want to rethink the idea of a mental template, since the only seemingly constant amongst all of the above is that they exhibit flake removals on both faces. They're BIFACES, fer gawd's sake! 
     The only thing that distinguishes one from another is planted firmly in the mind of the thoroughly indoctrinated archaeologists who perpetuate this farce of a classification system. What, pray tell, would one do with the one that's one frame in from the left edge about half way down? It looks like nothing so much as a flaccid penis! What about the one that looks like a sawfish bill, second row from the top, three in from the right? And look at the size of it! It's like half a metre long! I think it's time for a fifth category--chain saw! For reals? For reals. 
     Handax? Schmandax!
Get over it.


  1. While the classification system seems outdated, the fact that so many have what appear to be quite definitely formed pointy ends seems unlikely if these were purely a core with no subsequent function. Many of the flake scars on the 'best candidates' look too small to be anything but intended to straighten the blade margin. I don't think you need to do that if you are just removing med-large flakes for expedient tools. The first one illustrated looks like the blade margins have been abraded to get them so smooth and straight. I don't know the current literature at all on palaeolithic - what use-wear studies have been published?

    I'm sympathetic to your main premise though. Locally here on the NWCoast we have a whole 'tool' class of "cobble choppers", which you may remember from your time at SFU. I think it was Charles Borden came up with this classification in the 1950s or early 60s from his excavations in the Fraser Canyon. Initially he thought he had a palaeolithic people of extreme antiquity (or at least early Holocene) represented that 'lacked bifacial technology'. He was heavily influence by what Bordes, Leakey, and National Geographic were expounding at the time. He came up with an elaborate typology of the cobble choppers to mimic the hand-axe typology (but with way more than four types). I really don't know what he was thinking, but I suspect he may have been conceiving the recent (in evolutionary time scale) ancestors of contemporary aboriginal people as something like the inhabitants of Gary Lars*n comics you compiled a few weeks ago. Borden dropped the arguement of a pre-bifacial culture after a time, but the concept of these as 'tools', even 'formed tools' persists even today. I once tried to make a notch in a western red cedar (one of the easiest woods to work with) with a cobble chopper I made while amusing myself for an hour waiting beside a riverbank for a helicopter pickup. I made a very futile small notch and had early-onset repetetive stress injuries to my arms after 20 minutes of smashing away two-handed. It was clear to me that these weren't functional tools except for the most crude tasks where you might want a sort of sharp edge and some weight behind it - coarse shredding cedar bark comes to mind as a possibility - but otherwise these were cores, not tools. A similar conclusion has been arrived at by several people since. I was able to show that the cobble cores and flakes in a "cobble chopper site" were distributed around the margins of log 'shadows' where people had probably made canoes millennia ago - likely hafting the flakes as expedient chisel or adze blades and discarding the cores (Stryd and Eldridge 1993 "CMT Archaeology in BC...." BC Studies 99:184-234).

    I see quite a parallel with your arguement here.

  2. The same could be said for the "Horse hoof core" from Australia.

    BTW some quartz does flake "properly" but it is almost chrystaline in structure. I found lots of it in an area where quartz was later mined for use in radios. Otherwise you have to use a totally different reduction strategy.

  3. Thanks to both commenters.
    @Morley: The pointy ends usually began life as the distal margin of a large flake with a big juicy bulb of percussion. Removing flakes from the thinner distal margin would rapidly produce diminishing results *cough* and so, as the bulb end is further reduced the distal margin/pointy end gets pointier. As for cobble choppers and the split cobbles that were so plentiful at, for example, Yale, as you point out they were clearly expedient, and not some slow learner's best effort!
    @IainS: Good point. I meant to say quartzite. Quartz, being cryptocrystalline would most likely fracture analogously with glass [I'd imagine].


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