In the beginning, there was design.
Before any other human discipline, even before the dawn of mankind its self, design was a practice passed down from generation to generation of early humans. Today, everything that has been designed–space ships, buildings, pyramids, weapons, clothing , artwork, everything–can be traced back to a single designed object. The first designed object: the Acheulean hand axe.
The Acheulean hand axe does not look like an “axe.” There’s no handle, and no metal. It could be called the “Acheulean pointy hand rock,” because it is just a rock that has been chipped and shaped, usually into the form of a tear-drop.
[A hand axe from Saint Acheul. Credit: Didier Descouens]
The term “Acheulean” refers to where the first specimens were found, on a dig site in Saint-Acheul, France. Other hand axes have been dug up in Africa, Europe and South Asia.
Early humans created these hand axes by breaking off big pieces with large rocks, and then shaping the fine edge with smaller rocks and pieces of bone. Making one of these things requires effort, skill, and time–anywhere from fifteen minutes to several hours.
[Making a hand axe. Credit: Russell Ciochon]
Acheulean hand axes were the first products of a design process, but they were not the first tools ever made.
The first tools were basically just rocks, or rocks that were chipped with a few major strikes to produce a few sharp edges. Anthropologists call these “Oldowan tools,” which our Homo habilis ancestors would simply go out and select, rather than design.
Selecting Oldowan tools requires cunning, but not craft. When early humans realized that they could fashion more precise tools by sharpening rockspurposefully, the hand axe became the first tool made with an end goal in mind.
An end goal which we today do not know.
[An Oldowan/ Acheulean size comparison. Credit: Tony Baker]
Even after finding so many of them, we don’t know how the Acheulean hand axe was used. It’s a mystery. There are a number of ideas and explanations as to why the hand axe appeared. Among them:
Theory #1: the “Swiss Army Knife” theory: The hand axe could have been a multi-tool, primarily used for butchering meat, and also good for breaking open nuts or grubs.
- Strength of the argument: these uses fit with the wear patterns on the hand axes that have been found.
- Weakness of the argument: in some cases, the full perimeter of the axe is sharp. This means that if you wanted to hold it, there’d be a sharp blade digging into your palm. Another problem with this theory is that some of the axes are symmetrical, which requires more effort than necessary if you’re just using it to breaking up nuts or cut meat.
Theory #2: the “Sexy Hand Axe” theory: the hand axe didn’t have a “use” per se, and was created mostly a way of showing off for mate attraction.
- Strength of the argument: Making these things is really really hard. Why spend so much time doing it unless you’re showing off? You’re showing the opposite sex what you can do.
- Weakness of the argument: Not all hand axes are nice and neat and symmetrical. There’s a lot of variation, and a lot depends on what rock they’re made of, and how precisely the sides have been sharpened. They weren’t all pretty.
Theory #3: the “Killer Frisbee” theory: hand axes were made to be projectiles, thrown in the fashion of the discus in the olympics.
- Strength of the argument: Perhaps hunters would bombard animals with hand axes. This might not be enough to make a kill, but the stones could maim a few and give a hunters an advantage. This hypothesis explains why they’re sharp all the way around, symmetrical, and aerodynamic.
- Weakness of the argument: Again, not all hand axes sharp all the way around and perfectly symmetrical. These things were made on three different continents over the course of a million years. There’s variation.
[Hand axes found in Kent. Credit: Matijap]
No matter what Ascheulean technology actually was used for, it must been effective, because this basic design was used for an incomprehensibly long time. Hominid adults were literally teaching hominid children how to make hand axes for over a million years.
Before there was mathematics, engineering, science, art, music, poetry, philosophy, literature, religion, or even language, there was design. There was the Acheulean hand axe.
[Different varieties of hand axes. Credit: Lithic Casting Lab]
Will Lidwell is also the author of Universal Principles of Design, which we highly recommend.
Cover image: a French hand axe from the Museum of Toulouse
Music: “Also Sprach Zarathustra” – Richard Strauss; “Cracked Nut Suite” –Poddington Bear; “Shrink Ray” – E-Rock; “Speichen” – Ursula Bogner; “[•• ••]” – Shumit DasGupta; “Cool As A Fan (Instrumental)” – Little Brother; “Übern Fluß” – Roedelius; “In Dark Trees” – Brian Eno; “Summer Night” – Mute Mornings