Handaxes as Ornaments

Stone handaxes show that hominids did care about form and finish. Indeed, science writer Marek Kohn and archeologist Steven Mithen independently developed the theory that sexual selection favored symmetric handaxes as fitness indicators. If their arguments work, handaxes represent the first hominid works of art, and the first hard evidence of sexual selection shaping human material culture.

Two and a half million years ago, our small-brained ancestors evolved the ability to knock flakes from rocks to use as cutting edges. By doing so, they could also make the rocks themselves useful as choppers. This basic tool kit of flakes and choppers served the needs of hunting and gathering for a million years. Then, around 1.6 million years ago, a medium-brained African hominid (Homo erectus) evolved the ability to produce an extraordinary object that archeologists call a handaxe. A handaxe is a rock chipped into roughly the size and shape of a child's hand—flat with fingers together. There is a sharp edge all around and a point at the tip. The outline is midway between that of a pear and a triangle. The top and bottom faces are symmetrical (handaxes are also called "bifaces"), as are the right and left halves. Most were made of flint, some of quartzite or obsidian.

Handaxes proved enormously popular. They were made for over a million years, until about 200,000 years ago, by which time our ancestors had evolved into large-brained archaic Homo sapiens. Handaxes were made throughout Africa, Europe, and Asia, and in enormous numbers: sometimes hundreds are found at a single dig site. The persistence of a single design across such a span of space and time cannot be explained through cultural imitation. Designs passed down through mere imitation tend to deviate further and further from the original prototype, as languages do over hundreds of years. Handaxes must have been to hominids what bowers are to bowerbirds: part of their extended phenotype, a genetically inherited propensity to construct a certain type of object.

But why did the handaxe evolve? Handaxes are not particularly bad tools. They offer a fair amount of cutting edge for their weight, and they are somewhat safer and easier to use than flakes when butchering large animals. But the cutting edge all the way around the rim makes a handaxe rather difficult to hold, like a knife without a handle. For almost all practical purposes, sharp flakes and edged choppers would have been sufficient.

Perhaps handaxes were missiles rather than hand-held tools? H. G. Wells proposed in 1899 that handaxes may have been thrown at prey but this "killer Frisbee hypothesis" has not fared well. In 1997, in a coal mine in Schoningen, Germany, archeo-logists found some well-preserved, six-foot-long sprucewood spears. They were almost as well engineered as modern javelins, quite lethal, and 400,000 years old. Given that such excellent missiles had been developed by that date, why did our ancestors keep making handaxes for another 200,000 years?

Some handaxes may have been practical tools, but Kohn and Mithen noted that many show evidence of skill, design, and symmetry far beyond the demands of utility. Some were made in large sizes too heavy and clumsy to use. The "Furze Platt Giant" handaxe is over a foot long, and seems designed to be held in both hands and admired. Others are under two inches long, too small to be of much use. Often they show far more exact symmetry than seems necessary, and, from a practical viewpoint, excessive attention to the regularity of form and finish. Handaxes were often made in very large numbers in the same place. Most importantly, many of the finest handaxes show no sign of use: no visible chips, and no evidence of edge wear under the electron microscope. Why were so many handaxes made so perfectly, with such care, and then discarded, apparently unused, still sharp enough to cut fingers a million years later?

In his book As We Know It, Marek Kohn argued that the handaxe "is a highly visible indicator of fitness, and so becomes a criterion of mate choice." Handaxes make good Zahavian handicaps. They impose high learning costs: it takes six months to acquire the basics of flint-knapping, and years more to perfect the skill. They take extra time to make. Modern experts with 25 years of flint-knapping experience take about 20 minutes to make a decent handaxe, whereas a simple edged tool can be made in just a couple of minutes. There are risks of injury: modern flint-knappers wear boots, leather aprons, and goggles to protect against flying rock shards, and they often get cuts on their hands. Expert handaxe production requires a combination of physical strength, hand-eye coordination, careful planning, conscientious patience, pain tolerance (to deal with the flying debris), and resistance to infection (to deal with the cuts)—as Kohn noted, "A handaxe is a measure of strength, skill and character." Their symmetry, like that of the peacock's tail and the human face, makes their perfection of form very easy to assess, but very hard to produce. In short, handaxes are reliable indicators of many physical and mental aspects of fitness. Kohn suggested that the normal, pragmatic handaxes may have been fashioned by females, while the very large, very small and very symmetrical ones were produced by males as sexual displays.

So, we have an object that looks like a practical survival tool at first glance, but that has been modified in important ways to function as a costly fitness indicator. Kohn and Mithen have made a fairly good case that the handaxe was often a work of art, and a sexual attractant. They suggested several ways to test their hypothesis further. If their radical idea proves correct, then handaxes may have been the first art-objects produced by our ancestors, and the best examples of sexual selection favoring the capacity for art. In one neat package, the handaxe combines instinct and learning, strength and skill, blood and flint, sex and survival, art and craft, familiarity and mystery. One might even view all of recorded art history as a footnote to the handaxe, which reigned a hundred times as long.

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