This flint Acheulean handaxe is from England.
The handaxe displays a distinctive ‘twist’ when viewed from the tip.
The artefact is part of the Brice Teaching Collection, University of Manchester.
By ca. 600,000-700,000, hominins began expanding out of the Iberian peninsula and crossed the Pyrenees Mountains into the region of modern France. Famous handaxe sites in France include the type site for the Acheulean, St Acheul, in gravel deposits on the Somme River; Terra Amata, in Nice on the French Riviera; and La Noira, on a tributary of the lower Loire River. By 500,000 BP, Acheulean hominins were living what is now southern Britain (the English Channel did not exist at this time), most notably at Boxgrove in West Sussex, which preserves the best-preserved Late Acheulean handaxe-making localities so far discovered. Acheulean handaxe are found widely across the southern UK, including the famous finds at Hoxne, and a large modern sculpture of a handaxe commemorates the artefacts found in the Barnfield Pit near Swanscombe.
This handaxe is notable because of the ’twist’ in the biface’s cross section, which can be seen by rotating the handaxe and viewing it from the tip. The twist is produced by first producing a biface with a centred edge then, in the later stages, removing flakes unifacially from first one edge, flipping it over, then removing flakes invasively from the opposite edge. This removes more mass from the obverse face than the reverse face, and flipping the biface causes the unequally-reduced zones to be on opposite faces on opposite edges. The result is a twist. Z-twists tend to be produced by right-handed knappers, because they are prone to flip the handaxe one way, but left handed knappers flip the handaxe the opposite way, resulting in S-twists. The handaxe in this model displays the more unusual S-twist and was likely made by a left-handed flintknapper. Twisted handaxes are well-documented in the extensively-studied handaxe assemblages from Britain and neighbouring regions of France. There they mostly date between ca. 337,000-524,000 BP but are most common between ca. 424,000-478,000 BP. Twisted handaxes are widespread across Africa during the Acheulean; a large assemblage of obsidian twisted handaxes was recovered from Gombore II in Ethiopia dating to ca. 850,000 BP.
A popular explanation of twisted handaxes is that the shape was produced deliberately. One research team has said ‘the production of twisted edges demand the mental ability to conceive and impose wave forms onto handaxe edges by keeping several opposing and future knapping operations in mind. The individual edge segments must be continuously conceived as parts of the greater whole and work in harmony with each other to achieve what is, in our opinion, not an accident but a clear design template.’ This suggests considerable mental acuity on the part of these non-modern hominin flintknappers. These authors also propose that the design template must have been learned and passed on between generations through teaching. Because of this, making a twisted handaxe signalled a flintknapper’s identity within the social group and also served as an ‘emblem’ of identity to other social groups.
A more parsimonious interpretation does not assume the twist was a deliberately-imposed design feature; rather, it emerged from the ‘repetitive rhythms of making’. In this case, the twist was a simple outcome of flipping the biface in the same direction during the final stages of flaking, resulting in the asymmetric removal of stone. In this case, flipping was done automatically, conditioned by whether the flintknapper was right- or left-handed. An extensive study of twisted handaxes in Britain found that 94% display the Z-twist typical of right-handed flintknappers. The result of flipping in the same direction was the frequent convergence on a morphology—the twist—as a result of repetitive use of the same simple gesture (flipping the biface) rather than a deliberate intention to produce the twist. This simpler explanation accounts for the exceptionally long period over which twisted handaxes were made—some 500,000 years—and their widespread distribution from Africa to England. Z-twist bifaces also occur in assemblages throughout later prehistory and across the world due to this simple ‘flip’ gesture conditioned by handedness.