Handaxes: Products of Sexual Selection?

By Kohn, Marek; Mithen, Steven | Antiquity, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Handaxes: Products of Sexual Selection?


Kohn, Marek, Mithen, Steven, Antiquity


Introduction: unanswered questions about handaxes

Handaxes are bifacially manufactured stone artefacts, predominantly pointed or ovate in shape. Along with cleavers, which have a wide, straight edge at right angles to the major axis of the artefact, handaxes are also known as 'bifaces'. Such artefacts first appear in the archaeological record 1.4 million years ago (Asfaw et al. 1992) and then continue as a pervasive element of that record for more than one million years. Handaxes are associated with a range of hominid species, including those assigned to Homo ergaster, H. erectus, and H. heidelbergensis.

Many thousands of handaxes have been excavated from sites in Africa, Europe and Asia, and then subjected to detailed metrical studies (e.g. Isaac 1977; Roe 1981; 1994; Villa 1983; Wynn & Tierson 1990). Archaeologists have undertaken microwear analysis, detailed re-fitting of debitage and experimental studies concerned with manufacture and use (e.g. Keeley 1980; Jones 1980; 1994; Bergman & Roberts 1988; Austin 1994; Mitchell 1996). Handaxes have also been at the centre of research regarding the evolution of human intelligence (e.g. Wynn 1979; 1989; 1993; 1995; Mithen 1996; Kohn 1999). Recent studies have challenged notions of chronological patterning for handaxe types, and placed emphasis on raw material and function, rather than culture and style, when explaining handaxe morphology (e.g. Ashton & McNabb 1994; Callow 1994; Bosinski 1996; Roberts et al. 1996; White 1998). There has also been more emphasis on handaxe variability, stressing how artefacts range from the classic, highly symmetrical bifaces to non-classic or atypical bifaces, which lack a clearly imposed form (Ashton & McNabb 1994).

In spite of this extensive body of research, five fundamental questions remain unanswered:

1 Why are handaxes so pervasive in the archaeological record?

2 Why are they often found in such prolific numbers at individual sites?

3 Why was time invested in making these artefacts when less extensively retouched artefacts, or even plain unretouched flakes, are suitable for tasks such as butchery, woodworking and the other activities for which handaxes were used?

4 What was the value of imposing high degrees of symmetry on so many handaxes?

5 How can one explain the handaxe 'oddities', especially the 'giant' handaxes? Examples include those from Furze Platt and Shrub Hill in England, both of which appear much too unwieldy for use (Wymer 1968; 1983; Roe 1981). Roe's (1994: 207) description of an assemblage of quartzite handaxes from the site of FLK in the Masek beds at Olduvai Gorge includes 'dramatic objects' c. 28 cm long.

Archaeologists' attempts to address such questions have focused on the role of handaxes in hunting or butchering animals, or tasks such as digging, cutting wood or processing plants. Interpretations range from multi-purpose artefacts (Keeley 1980) to throwing implements (O'Brien 1981; Calvin 1993). We think that this overwhelming concern with hominid interaction with the natural world has constrained the development of satisfactory answers to the above questions. We concur with Gamble (1997: 108) that handaxes were also part of a 'social technology', and with White (1998: 32) that the 'apparent over-sophistication' of many bifaces for tasks such as butchery may well reflect some 'historically accrued social significance'. But we wish to go further than these generalizations by making a specific proposition: handaxes were products of sexual selection and as such were integral to the processes of mate choice within socially complex and competitive groups.

Sexual selection in human evolution

Miller (1997) provides a comprehensive review of sexual selection in human evolution, including origins, historical development and current applications. In essence, sexual selection concerns mate choice: those individuals who possess characteristics which are attractive to members of the opposite sex will be chosen as reproductive partners; if those characteristics have some genetic basis they will flourish in future generations. …

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