The acheulean hand-axe
Wed, 04 Aug 1999 20:56:34 +0000

I found the following article fascinating. It explains why the achuelian
handaxe was made to such perfection. It also implies that the human mind
was on earth much earlier than Christians want to believe.

As We Know It - Coming to
Terms with an Evolved Mind

by Chris Stringer

Buy this book online from

The human brain presents
science with some of its
greatest challenges. These
include many questions about
how it works, but just as great
a mystery is why it is so large,
when it is also so expensive to
maintain. Many scientists
assume that our brain grew
large because of the increasing
complexity of our behaviour,
particularly in our intelligence
and our use of language and
symbols. By half a million
years ago, human skulls had
brain sizes approaching our own, so are we justified in
assuming that these predecessors were therefore already
like us in their behaviour? Marek Kohn argues that we
cannot make that assumption.

This book is an exploration of some of the ways that
archaeologists and anthropologists have tried to explain
the evolution of the modern mind, and, in particular, it
introduces one of the newest scientific approaches - that
of evolutionary psychology. The author attended the
Darwin Seminars held at the London School of Economics
from 1995-1998, presented by speakers who used the
principles of sociobiology and its offspring, evolutionary
psychology, to explain the origin of many facets of modern
human behaviour.

These approaches apply the ideas of selection at the level
of individuals and their genes to account for observations
about aspects of human biology and behaviour. Some
presentations were cautious, even critical, while others
were far more radical - for example in suggesting that men
consciously or subconsciously favour a waist-hip ratio in
females of about 0.7, that step-parents may be 50 times
more likely to murder a child under their care than a
genetic parent, that a foetus is in conflict rather than
harmony with its mother over her bodily resources.

Kohn takes particular test cases and uses them to illustrate
the approach of evolutionary psychologists, and has even
come up with his own theory to explain that enigmatic
artefact of the "Old Stone Age" - the handaxe. These
almond-shaped tools were produced to very consistent
patterns for over a million years. They were made by
different species of early human, and can be found in sites
across three continents. Flint-knappers of today can
replicate these artefacts with about 15 minutes of
concentrated effort, but it takes a long time to perfect the
art, even for a modern human, and therefore some
archae-ologists have argued that the skill and consistency
with which these tools were made must reflect the
presence of a mind with our intelligence and complexity.
And yet looked at another way, whether they are being
made from volcanic rock to butcher elephants beside a
lake in East Africa a million years ago, or from flint to
butcher rhinos on a beach in Sussex 500,000 years ago,
their variation seems limited. To other archaeologists, the
uniformity of the handaxe through time and space is
peculiar - to them, it does not look like a product of a
modern culture or mind. When asked whether making
handaxes meant that early humans had language, the
archaeologist Desmond Clark could only reply that if they
were talking to each other, they were saying the same
thing over and over again!

So what is Kohn's new explanation for the handaxe?
Noting that many sites have large numbers of handaxes
abandoned with little or no evidence of use, he argues that
it was actually a kind of Stone Age status symbol, a signal
between potential mates. He paints an unflattering, but
nevertheless probably realistic, picture of early humans
swarming around the carcass of a newly-killed rhino or
horse, competing rather than cooperating with each other
to tear off and eat the flesh. Men, but also women and
children, knapped handaxes on the spot, but for the men in
particular, this was a chance to impress males and,
especially, fertile females, with their skill, as they competed
with each other in the speed and profligacy of their
handaxe production. Kohn does not argue that handaxes
only had this signalling function (modern trials show that
they are very effective butchery knives), nor does he
suggest that they were the only criterion of mate choice,
but he sees them becoming part of a repertoire of
courtship procedures based on creativity and novelty, thus
leading to the perpetuation of the handaxe tradition
through the relative genetic success of those best suited to
continue it.

Having dealt with early human behaviour in the first half of
the book, Kohn moves on to explore the subsequent
evolutionary changes which were necessary to create the
modern human mind, with its complexities of altruism,
symbolism and religious beliefs. In doing so, he attempts to
show that modern Darwinism can be a tool for revealing
the positive potential of human nature as well as the darker
side which is often emphasised. Kohn argues that science,
social science and society all stand to gain from an
evolutionary approach to the human mind, and that the
political Left, as well as the Right, should not be afraid to
embrace it. I find his arguments here more convincing than
some of the applications of evolutionary psychology to
human behaviour that he describes. Kohn's book is not
always easy reading, but does provide a more rounded
and less dogmatic introduction to this challenging field than
many of its exponents.

Foundation, Fall and Flood
Adam, Apes and Anthropology

Lots of information on creation/evolution