NMNH Home Whats New? Calendar of Events Information Desk Search navigation barSmithsonian InstitutionNMNH Natural History Highlight

         Ancient axes - 
              Asian puzzle

Photo: two sides of a new handaxe  
The two sides of a new handaxe from 
the Bose Basin  of  South China, made 
800,000 years ago.

For more than 50 years prehistorians have been perplexed by what seemed to be a  puzzle piece missing from the archaeological record of East Asia, stone tools.  Where were these large, two-sided, flaked stone tools so common in Africa from about 1.5 million years ago and in Europe beginning 500,000 years ago?  Carefully shaped all-purpose handaxes were a  major invention as early hominids refined their techniques for turning stone into technology.  These were an advance over the more primitive motif of the first toolmakers, which involved chipping off splinters of rock from a stone core in order to develop an edge or a usable sharp flake.  
The making of handaxes required a more sophisticated understanding of a rock’s material structure, knowing where suitable stuff can be found, and learning how it could be worked into an instrument by pounding and hammering – the remote beginnings of physics, geology and the sharing of highly complex visual information.  Were these implements missing because East Asian hominids were isolated culturally from the other toolmakers?  Or, because they or their forerunners departed Africa before the know-how to make handaxes was established?  Or, was the knowledge forgotten?
A team of scientists from the United States and China has begun to unravel this mystery. Their project is co-directed by Dr. Rick Potts of the Human Origins Program at the National Museum of  Natural History and Prof. Huang Weiwen of the IVPP (Chinese Academy of Sciences), and includes Jennifer Clark, also of the Human Origins Program. As reported in the March 3, 2000 issue of  the journal Science, they have found the oldest known large cutting tools in South China, which resemble the handaxes of their African and Eurasian contemporaries in several important ways. Photo of dig  
Dr. Rick Potts and colleague Hou Yamei 
work the trenches.

The 800,000-year-old artifacts were excavated together with charred samples of wood and glassy shards of once-molten rock, tektites, which form over vast areas, possibly as splash material produced by the impact of a meteorite.  Oddly, the tools only occurred in the layer where tektites were present as well, a stroke of luck not only for modern science – tektites can be accurately dated – but also for the Paleolithic technologists of the Bose Basin.  Forest fires triggered by the shower of tektites may have wasted the landscape and exposed stone cobbles suitable for making tools of a particular type.

The artifacts from Bose Basin in South China show that when the right materials were available, East Asian hominids fashioned their tools with a target shape in mind, one that must have resembled the ideas of their Afro-Eurasian counterparts.  The Bose toolmakers also used a similar manufacturing process that involved dislodging of many large flakes, often on both sides of a stone core, and edge shaping.  They left tools behind (for thankful paleoanthropologists) in concentrations, like the classical Acheulean toolmakers.

Missing still are the beautifully styled, teardrop-shaped implements that have been the hallmark of the end of the handaxe tradition, after 800,000 years ago in western Eurasia and Africa.  What Potts, Clark and colleagues discovered in the Bose Basin is the behavior that goes with it, the competence to make them.

To learn more about Ancient Axes  visit these links:


"Natural History Highlight" features interesting and exciting activities and objects from the Museum.  We will frequently introduce new highlights that come from our research, collections, exhibits, and projects.      

Past Highlights

NMNH Home  |  Information Desk  |  What's New?  |  Calendar of Events  |  Research & Collections
Discovery Center (IMAX)
  |  Exhibits  Educational Resources  |  Natural History Highlight | Search


May -2000 - NMNH Webmaster