Hand axe

The first published picture of a hand axe, drawn by John Frere in the year 1800.
Flint hand axe found in Winchester

A hand axe is a prehistoric stone tool with two faces that is the longest-used tool in human history. It is usually composed of flint or chert. It is characteristic of the lower Acheulean and middle Palaeolithic (Mousterian) periods. Its technical name (biface) comes from the fact that the archetypical model is a generally bifacial Lithic flake with an almond-shaped (amygdaloidal) morphology. Hand axes tend to be symmetrical along their longitudinal axis and formed by pressure or percussion. The most common hand axes have a pointed end and rounded base, which gives them their characteristic shape, and both faces have been knapped to remove the natural cortex, at least partially. Hand axes are a type of the somewhat wider biface group of two-faced tools or weapons.

Hand axes were the first prehistoric tools to be recognized as such: the first published representation of a hand axe was drawn by John Frere and appeared in a British publication in 1800.[1] Up until that time, their origins were thought to be natural or supernatural. They were called thunderstones, because popular tradition held that they had fallen from the sky during storms or were formed inside the earth by a lightning strike and then appeared at the surface; in fact, they are still used in some rural areas as an amulet to protect against storms.

Hand axe tools were possibly used in five ways:

  1. Butchering hunted or scavenged animals
  2. Digging for tubers, animals, water
  3. Chopping wood and removing tree bark
  4. Throwing at prey
  5. As a source for flake tools


Some researchers have defined four classes of hand axe:

While Class IV hand axes are referred to as "formalized tools", bifaces from any stage of a lithic reduction sequence may be used as tools. (Also, other biface typologies make five divisions rather than four).

The word «biface», was used for the first time in 1920 by the French antiquarian André Vayson de Pradenne.[2] this term co-exists with the more popular «hand axe» («coup de poing»), which was coined by Louis Laurent Gabriel de Mortillet much earlier,[3] The continued use of the word biface by François Bordes and Lionel Balout and their scientific authority has maintained the use of the word biface in France and Spain where it has replaced the term hand axe. Use of the expression hand axe has continued in English as the equivalent of the French biface (bifaz in Spanish), while biface is used more generally for any piece that has been carved on both sides by the removal of shallow or deep flakes.[4] The expression faustkeil is used in German that can be literally translated as hand axe, although in a stricter sense it means «fist wedge». It is the same in Dutch where the expression used is 'vuistbijl' which literally means «fist axe» and the same occurs in other languages.

However, the general impression of these tools has been too rigid as the first definitions of hand axes were based on ideal pieces (or classic) that were of such perfect shape that they caught the attention of non-experts. Over time, a deepening knowledge of their typology has resulted in a broadening of the term's meaning, so there is now a distinction between a biface hand axe and a bifacial lithic item. In fact, according to today's definitions a hand axe is not always a bifacial item and there are many bifacial items that are not hand axes at all. Hand axes and bifacial items are not exclusive to the Lower Palaeolithic period in the Old World, they appear throughout the world and in many different prehistorical epochs, without necessarily implying an ancient origin. In fact, lithic typology has long ceased to be a reliable chronological reference and it has been abandoned as a dating system. Examples of this include the «quasi-bifaces» that sometimes appear in strata from the Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian periods in France and Spain, the crude bifacial pieces of the Lupemban culture (9000 B. C.) or the pyriform tools found near Sagua La Grande in Cuba.[5] It appears that the findings at Sagua La Grande have been misinterpreted perhaps from a misunderstanding of the concept or due to contamination of the Spanish language by English. As explained above, the word biface refers to something different in English than biface in French or bifaz in Spanish, which could lead to many misunderstandings. Bifacially carved cutting tools, very similar to hand axes, were used to clear scrub vegetation throughout the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods. These tools are similar to more modern adzes and were a cheaper alternative to polished axes. The modern day villages along the Sepik river in New Guinea continue to use tools that are virtually identical to hand axes to clear parts of the forest. In the opinion of Professor Luis Benito del Rey of the University of Salamanca: «The term "biface" should be reserved for items from before the Würm II-III interstadial»,[6] although he also admits that certain later objects could exceptionally be called bifaces (Benito del Rey, op. cit., 1982, page 305 and note 1).

Hand axe should also not be identified with axe, which has unfortunately been somewhat over-used in lithic typology to describe a wide variety of stone tools, particularly at a time when the true use of the items being described was not understood. In the particular case of palaeolithic hand axes the term axe is an inadequate description. Lionel Balout has stated «the term should be rejected as a erroneous interpretation of these objects that are not "axes"».[7] Subsequent studies have supported this idea, above all those examining the signs of use, as will be seen below.[8]

Raw materials

Hand axes are mainly made of flint, but rhyolites, phonolites, quartzites and other rather coarse rocks were used as well. Obsidian, natural volcanic glass, shatters easily and was rarely used.


As most hand axes have a sharp border all around, there is no firm agreement about their use. The pioneers of the study of Palaeolithic tools first suggested that bifaces were used as axes or at least for use in hard physical activities. The idea soon arose that the hand axe was a multi-functional tool and not only this, in addition it was realised that the different forms and shapes of the many known examples make them in effect what is colloquially known as the Acheulean "Swiss Army knife". Each type of tool could have been used for a number of different tasks.

Drawing of a hand holding a hand axe

H. G. Wells proposed in 1899 that hand axes were used as missile weapons to hunt prey[9] – an interpretation supported by Professor William H. Calvin of University of Washington, in Seattle who has suggested that some of the rounder examples of Acheulean hand axes were used as hunting projectiles or as «killer frisbees» meant to be thrown at a herd of animals at a water hole so as to stun one of them. This assertion was inspired by findings from the Olorgesailie archaeological site in modern Kenya.[10] There are few indications of hand axe hafting, and some artifacts are far too large for that. However a thrown hand axe would not usually have penetrated deeply enough to cause very serious injuries. Additionally many hand axes are very small. There is very little evidence of impact damage in most handaxes.

In addition, as hand axes can be recycled, resharpened and even remade throughout their lives, they could have been used for many different tasks during their working life. For this reason it is misleading to think of them simply as axes, they could have been used for digging, cutting, scraping, chopping, piercing, hammering etc. In addition, and given their mass, they may also be used as a lithic core to obtain flakes that could be used as knives or transformed for specialized uses through retouching.

Tony Baker suggested that the hand axe was not a tool, but a core from which flakes had been removed and used as tools (flake core theory).[11] However, hand axes are often found with retouching such as sharpening or shaping, casting doubt on this idea.

Other theories suggest the shape is part tradition and partly a by-product of the way it is manufactured. Since many early hand axes appear to be made from simple rounded pebbles (from river or beach deposits), it is necessary to detach a 'starting flake', often much larger than the rest of the flakes (due to the oblique angle of a rounded pebble requiring greater force to detach it), thus creating an asymmetry in the hand axe. When the asymmetry is corrected by removing extra material from the other faces, a trend toward a more pointed (oval) form factor is achieved. (Knapping a completely circular hand axe requires considerable correction of the shape.) Studies in the 1990s at Boxgrove, in which a butcher attempted to cut up a carcass with a hand axe, revealed that the hand axe was perfect for getting at bone marrow.

Marek Kohn and Steven Mithen have independently arrived at the explanation that symmetric hand axes have been favored by sexual selection as fitness indicators.[12] Kohn in his book As we know it wrote that the hand axe is "a highly visible indicator of fitness, and so becomes a criterion of mate choice."[13] Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller follows on their example and has said that hand axes have characteristics which make them suitable for being subject to sexual selection forces, such as that they were made for over a million years throughout Africa, Europe and Asia, they were made in large numbers, and most were impractical for utilitarian use. He says that a single design persisting across such a span of time and space cannot be explained by cultural imitation and draws a parallel between bowerbirds' bowers (built to attract potential mates and used only during courtship) and Pleistocene hominids' hand axes. He calls hand axe building a "genetically inherited propensity to construct a certain type of object." He discards the idea that they were used as missile weapons as there were more efficient weapons at the time, such as javelins, and although he accepts that some hand axes may have been used for practical reasons, he agrees with Kohn and Mithen who have shown that many hand axes show a considerable degree of skill, design and symmetry beyond the demands for utility, some were too big (such as the hand axe found in Furze Platt, England which is over a foot long) or too small (less than two inches, therefore of little practical use), they feature symmetry far beyond practical use and show evidence for excessive attention to form and finish. Miller thinks that the most important clue is that most hand axes show no signs of use or evidence of edge wear under electron microscopes. Furthermore, hand axes can be good handicaps in Amotz Zahavi's handicap principle theory: the learning costs are high, there are risks of injury, they require physical strength, hand-eye coordination, planning, patience, pain tolerance, and resistance to infection from cuts and bruises when making or using such a hand axe.[14]

Evidence from wear analysis

However, there are a number of problems that need to be overcome in carrying out this type of analysis: the first resides in the difficulty in observing the larger pieces using a microscope, this has meant that despite the millions of known pieces, very few have been thoroughly studied. The second big question arises from the clear evidence that the same tasks were performed more effectively using utensils made from flakes:

This raises the question: why make hand axes, whose production is more complicated and costly, if the flakes can do the same work with the same efficiency? The answer could be that, in general, hand axes were not conceived for a particular function (excluding certain specialized types) [...], they were not made for one main task but covered a much more general purpose.
Keeley, op. cit., page: 136.

Keeley, basing his observations on various archaeological sites in England, has proposed that in base settlements where it was possible to predict future actions and where there was a greater control on routine activities, the preferred tools were racloirs, backed knives, scrapers, punches, etc. (that is, tools made from specialized flakes). However, hand axes were more suitable on expeditions and in seasonal camps, where it was more likely that unforeseen tasks would need to be carried out. Their main advantage in these situations was their all-round nature, lack of specialization and adaptability to all eventualities. A hand axe has a long blade with different curves and angles, some will be sharper and others more resistant, it will also have points, notches etc. All of this combined in one piece and, given the right circumstances, it is possible to make use of loose flakes.[16] In the same book, Keeley states that a number of the hand axes studied were used as knives to cut meat (such as hand axes from Hoxne and Caddington). He has also identified that the point of another hand axe has been used as a drill that was turned clockwise. This hand axe came from the famous archaeological site at Clacton-on-Sea (all of these site are located in the east of England). The American Nicholas Toth reached similar conclusions for pieces from the Spanish archaeological site in Ambrona (Soria);[17] Analysis carried out by the Spaniard Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo and co-workers on the primitive Acheulean site in Peninj (Tanzania) on a series of tools dated as 1.5 m years old shows clear microwear produced by plant phytoliths, suggesting that the hand axes were used to work wood.[18]

Drawing of the fracturing of the point of a hand axe, due to its use.
Acheulean hand axe whose point fractured and was reconstructed using a different working.

Variation in form

Acheulean hand axes from Kent. The types shown are (clockwise from top) chordate, ficron and ovate.

The most characteristic and common shape that a hand axe has is a pointed area at one end, cutting edges along its side and a rounded base (this includes hand axes with a lanceolate and amygdaloidal morphology as well as others from the same family). However, a hand axe is an instrument with a variety of shapes, including circular, triangular, and elliptical. They can be between 8 and 15 cm in length, although they can also be bigger or smaller.

Typical Acheulean hand axe

They were typically made from a rounded stone, a block or lithic flake, using a hammer to remove flakes from both sides of the item. This hammer can be hard (made of stone) or more delicate results can be obtained using a soft version made of wood or antler). However, there are a number of differences relating to a hand axe's technological aspect. For example, uniface tools have only been worked on one side and partial bifaces retain a high proportion of the natural cortex of the tool stone, often making it easy to confuse them with chopping tools. Further, simple bifaces may have been created from a suitable tool stone but they rarely show evidence of retouching.

In summary, despite the recognition of hand axes by many typological schools and under different archaeological paradigms, and despite being easily recognisable (at least the most typical examples), it is almost impossible to easily define them as a distinct set or sub-set. Stated more formally, the idealised model combines a series of well defined properties, but none of these properties are necessary or sufficient to characterize any item as a hand axe. Only some of these attributes are necessary for a positive identification, although an object may lack others.

«The study of hand axes is made complicated because its shape is the result of a complicated chain of technical actions that are only occasionally revealed in their later stages. If this complexity of intentions during the manufacture of a hand axe is added to its variety of forms [...] we realise that the hand axe is one of the most problematical and complex objects in Prehistory»
Benito del Rey, op. cit. 1982, pages 314 and 315.[6]

History and distribution

The oldest currently known Oldowan tools have been found in Gona, Ethiopia. These are dated to about 2.6 mya.[20] New discoveries may push that date further back in time.

Some early examples of hand axes, date back to 1.6mya in the later Oldowan (Mode I), called the "developed Oldowan" by Mary Leakey,[21] but these hand axes became more abundant in mode II Acheulean industries that appear in what is now Southern Ethiopia around 1.4 million years ago,[22] although some of the best examples come from 1.2 million year old deposits in Olduvai Gorge.[23] They are also known in Mousterian industries.

By 1.8 mya early man was present in Europe, as shown by the discovery of skulls and Oldowan tools from that time in Dmanisi, Georgia.[24] Remains of their activities have also been excavated in Spain at sites in the Guadix-Baza basin[25] and near Atapuerca.[26] Most early European sites yield "mode 1" or Oldowan assemblages. The earliest Acheulean sites in Europe only appear around 0.5 mya. In addition, the Acheulean tradition does not seem to spread to Eastern Asia.[27] It is notable that in Europe, and particularly in France and England, the oldest hand axes only appear after the Beestonian GlaciationMindel Glaciation, approximately 750,000 years ago, during the so-called Cromerian complex,[28] although they became more widely produced during the Abbevillian tradition (Abbevillian is an obsolete name for a tradition now seen as part of the Oldowan, it is also applied to distinguish certain crudely worked bifaces).

Map showing the approximate distribution of those cultures using bifaces during the Middle Pleistocene (Acheulean)[29]

The apogee of hand axe manufacture took place in a wide area of the Old World, especially during the Riss glaciation, in a cultural complex that can almost be described as being cosmopolitan and which is known as the Acheulean. The use of hand axes survived during the Middle Palaeolithic in a much smaller area, being especially important during the Mousterian, up to the middle of the Last glacial period.

(In Europe) «Small bifaces are found from the late Acheulean until the Aurignacian
Pierre-Jean Texier (page 18)[30]

Hand axes dating from the lower Palaeolithic have been found on the Asian continent, on the Indian subcontinent and in the Middle East (to the south of Parallel 40° N), but they were absent from the area to the east of the 90° E meridian. In fact the American archaeologist Hallam L. Movius designated a border (the so-called Movius Line) between the cultures that used hand axes to the west and those that maintained a tradition based on chopping tools and small retouched lithic flakes, such as were made by Peking man and the Ordos culture in China, or their equivalents in Indochina such as the Hoabinhian. The Padjitanian culture from Java was traditionally thought to be the only oriental culture to manufacture hand axes.[29] However, new archaeological evidence from Baise, China shows that there were also hand axes in eastern Asia.[31][32][33]

In North America, hand axes make up one of the dominant tool industries, starting from the terminal Pleistocene and continuing throughout the Holocene. For example, the Folsom point and Clovis point traditions (collectively known as the fluted points) are associated with Paleo Indians, some of the first people to colonize the new world (see Models of migration to the New World). Further, hand axe technology is almost unknown in Australian prehistory.

Contemporary experiments in knapping have demonstrated the relative ease with which a hand axe can be made,[34] which could go some way in explaining their success. In addition, as tools they are not very demanding in terms of maintenance nor in the choice of raw materials, any rock will suffice so long as it supports a conchoidal fracture. It is easy to improvise during their manufacture or correct mistakes without requiring detailed planning and above all there is no requirement for a long, demanding apprenticeship to learn the necessary techniques. All these factors combined have meant that these objects remained in use throughout pre-history. In addition, their adaptability makes them effective in an enormous variety of tasks, from the most heavy duty such as digging in soil, felling trees or breaking bones to the most delicate such as cutting ligaments, slicing meat or perforating a variety of materials.

Lastly, a hand axe represents a prototype that can be refined giving rise to more developed, specialised and sophisticated tools such as the tips of various projectiles, knives, adzes, hatchets etc.


Given the typological difficulties in determining the limits of what constitutes a hand axe, it is important when analysing them to take account of their archaeological context (geographical location, stratigraphy, the presence of other elements associated with the same level, chronology etc.). Due to their extreme age it is also necessary to study their physical state to establish any natural alterations that may have occurred: patina, shine, wear and tear, mechanical, thermal and / or physical-chemical changes such as cracking, in order to distinguish these factors from the scars left during the tool's manufacture.

The raw material is an important factor to be taken into account, not just because of the result that can be obtained by working it, but also in order to understand the economy of prehistoric humans and their movements. In the Olduvai Gorge (Tanzania), the places where the raw materials are most readily available are some ten kilometres from the nearest settlements. However, flint or silicate is readily available on the fluvial terraces of Western Europe. This therefore means that there will be different strategies required for the procurement and use of available resources in different areas.[35] The supply of materials was the most important factor in the manufacturing process as Palaeolithic artisans were able to adapt their methods to whatever materials were available, obtaining adequate results from even the most difficult raw materials. This has been demonstrated by many experts (Bordes, Tixier, Balout: in Benito del Rey, 1982, op. cit. pages 306-307;[6] Hayden, Carol et al, Jeske, etc.: in Torrence, 1989[36] Despite this it is important to study the rock's grain, texture, the presence of joints, veins, impurities or shatter cones etc.

In order to study the use of individual items it is necessary to look for traces of wear such as pseudo-retouches, breakage or wear, including areas that are polished. If the item is in a good condition is possible to submit it to use-wear analysis, which is discussed in more detail below. Apart from these generalities, which are common to all carved archaeological pieces, hand axes need a technical analysis of their manufacture and a morphological analysis.

Technical analysis

The technical analysis of a hand axe tries to discover each of the phases in its chaîne opératoire (operational sequence). The chain is highly flexible as a toolmaker may focus narrowly on just one of the sequence's links or equally on each link. The links examined in this type of study start with the extraction methods of the raw material, then include the actual manufacture of the item, its use, maintenance throughout its working life and finally its disposal.

A toolmaker may put a lot of effort into finding the highest quality raw material or the most suitable tool stone. In this way more effort is invested in obtaining a good foundation, but time is saved on shaping the stone, that is the effort is focussed on the start of the operational chain. Equally the artisan may concentrate the most effort in the manufacture so that the quality or suitability of the raw material is less important. This will minimize the initial effort but will result in a greater effort at the end of the operational chain.

Tool stone and cortex

Simple Acheulean hand axe made from a large quartzite flake (direction of knapping: lateral).

Hand axes are most commonly made from rounded pebbles or nodules, but many are also made from a large flake. Hand axes made from flakes first appeared at the start of the Acheulean period and became more common with time. Manufacturing a hand axe from a flake is actually easier than from a pebble, it is also quicker as flakes are more likely to be closer to the desired shape. This allows easier manipulation and fewer knaps are required to finish the tool, it is also easier to obtain straight edges. When analysing a hand axe made from a flake it should be remembered that its shape was predetermined (by use of the Levallois technique or Kombewa technique or similar). Notwithstanding this it is necessary to note tools characteristics: type of flake, heel, knap direction.[37]

Cortex: this refers to the natural external cortex or rind of the tool stone (pebble, rock, nodule, flake or slab of stone) that due to erosion and the physical-chemical alterations of weathering is different from the stone's interior. In the case of chert, quartz or quartzite, this alteration is basically mechanical and apart from the colour and the wear it has the same characteristics as the interior in terms of (hardness, toughness etc.). However, flint is surrounded by a limestone cortex that is soft and unsuitable for the manufacture of stone tools. As hand axes are made from a tool stone's core it is normal to indicate the thickness and position of the cortex in order to better understand the techniques that are required in their manufacture. Although it may be thought that the more cortex is present the older the item is, the variation in cortex between utensils should not be taken as an indication of the age of the item.

Many partially worked hand axes simply do not require further work in order to be effective tools, they can be considered to be simple hand axes. On the other hand, when a tool stone is less suitable it will require more thorough working. There are hand axes where the cortex is unrecognizable due to the complete working that it has undergone, which has eliminated any vestige of the original cortex.

It is possible to distinguish the following types of hand axe:

Uniface hand axe.
Partial biface.
Hand axe with unworked base.
Bifaz with a lateral back.


Older hand axes were produced by direct percussion with a stone hammer and can be distinguished by their thickness and a sinuous border. Later Mousterian hand axes were produced with a soft billet of antler or wood and are much thinner, more symmetrical and have a straight border. An experienced flintknapper needs less than 15 minutes to produce a good quality hand axe. A simple hand axe can be made from a beach pebble in less than 3 minutes.

Lithic reduction is the process by which a hand axe is manufactured. This phase is commonly thought of as being the most important in the fabrication of a hand axe, although it is not always the case, as has been discussed for hand axes made from flakes or a suitable tool stone. In studying the elaboration of a hand axe it is necessary to identify the type of implement that has been used to form the biface. If there have been a number of implements used it is essential to discover the order they were used in and the result obtained by each one. Naturally it is not always possible to discover the type of implement used, but the most common implements are:[6]

Hand axe formed using a hard hammer, without further treatment.
Hand axe formed using a hard hammer, the edges have also been worked using a hard hammer.
Hand axe probably roughed-out using a hard hammer and then retouched using a soft hammer.
Hand axe manufactured with a soft hammer, without the appearance of any marks made by a hard hammer.

It should be remembered that the manufacture of hand axes was not an objective in itself, they were designed as tools and as such they wore out, deteriorated or broke during their use. Therefore, when they arrive in the hands of a Palaeolithic archaeologist or typologist they are pieces that have suffered dramatic changes throughout their useful lives. It is common to find edges that have been sharpened, points that have been reconstructed and profiles that have been deformed by reworking in order to take advantage of the piece until it was abandoned. A tool may even have been recycled later, this has led François Bordes to note that hand axes «are sometimes found in the Upper Palaeolithic. Their presence, which is quite normal in the Perigordian I, is often due, in other levels, to the collection of Mousterian or Acheulean tools.».[44]

The detailed study of the manufacture of a subpopulation of hand axes belonging to a given lithic industry will allow a precise description to be made regarding the manufacturing process and permit statistical comparison with other groups of hand axe. This type of study is termed exploratory data analysis.

Morphological analysis

Hand axes have traditionally been oriented with their narrowest part upwards (presupposing that this would have been the most active part, which is not unreasonable given the large number of hand axes that exist with unworked bases). The axis of symmetry that divides a biface in two is called the morphological axis and the main face is usually the most regular and better worked. These are simple typological conventions that allow specialists to better understand each other. In the same way there are other terms used to describe a hand axe's morphology (or that of any other worked lithic object) that refer to purely technical concepts. It is therefore necessary to use the term base and not heel as in lithic typology the latter relates to a specific part of a flake that does not relate in any way to the base of a hand axe. It is also a mistake to use the expression distal zone to refer to the terminal zone or apex of a hand axe.[43]

Basic scheme for the morphological description of an Acheulean hand axe.

The Terminal Zone of a hand axe is, generally, the narrowest part opposite the base. Its most common shape is pointed, more or less acute or oval, some hand axes have terminal ends that are rounded or polygonal (i.e. not pointed) and lastly some hand axes have terminal ends that are transversal to the piece's morphological axis these are cleaver or spatulate hand axes.

The Proximal End or base of a hand axe is opposite the terminal end (and is usually broader and thicker), it can be described as follows: reserved, partially or totally worked, but not cut; or cut, with a rounded (polygonal), flat or pointed end.

The Edges: In morphological terms a hand axes edge's can be convex, rectilinear or concave, in addition they can be more or less even. There are also examples of edges that are denticulate – scalloped – or notched. It should also be noted that some hand axes have unsharpened edges. The profile of a hand axe's worked edges can be regular without pronounced (rectilinear deviations, that is, the edge is gently curved in the form of an S) or an edge may be more sinuous and wave-formed with, on occasions, pronounced curves or deviations in the edge's profile. When describing the morphology of a hand axe it is also important to note whether the whole perimeter of the tool has been formed into a working edge of only selected areas.

The Cross section is taken across a hand axe's central area or near to the apex. This provides an understanding of how each piece was worked, it is even possible to discern retouching or rebuilding in deteriorated parts of the edges. The following types of cross section are commonly seen: triangular (sub-triangular and backed triangular), rhombic (rhomboidal and backed rhomboidal), trapezium (trapezoid and backed trapezoidal), pentagon (pentagonal and backed pentagonal), polygonal, biconvex or lenticular (sub lenticular) etc.

The Profile: By definition, when a hand axe is seen straight on it should have a roughly balanced outline, with a morphological axis that also serves as an axis of bilateral symmetry and a plane that serves as an axis of bifacial symmetry. This does not mean that all hand axes are perfectly symmetrical. Firstly, symmetry has been achieved after millennia of technological perfecting, so it is not surprising that the oldest pieces are slightly asymmetrical. Secondly, symmetry is a typological criterion, but it does not necessarily help in the creation of more effective tools. Hand axes were used in a variety of heavy physical tasks. They deteriorated, wore out and broke and were often repaired with retouching of their edges, recovery of their points or complete reworking. Museums and private collections usually show the pieces that are aesthetically pleasing or which conform to a stereotypical model. This may be didactic, but in an archaeological excavation, the majority of the pieces that are seen by the archaeologists are remains, pieces that have been discarded after a long and complex life as tools. They will have been adapted to deal with particular circumstances or requirements that we cannot begin to imagine and the original tools have doubtless been altered. For this reason an unnatural and classical concept of symmetry is not always visible in real archaeological pieces.

Notwithstanding all this, for practical reasons the profiles' of hand axes can be classified into the following categories:

Biface profiles

Dimensions and ratios

Basic dimensions to be measured on an Acheulean hand axe.

A hand axe's measurements should have the morphological axis as a reference and use this for orientation. In addition to the three basic dimensions (length, width, depth), specialists have proposed a wide range of other physical quantities, with the most commonly used being those proposed by François Bordes (1961[44]) and Lionel Balout (1967[7]):

The last two, that is a and o, represent locations that can be used to delineate the contours of the hand axe's cross section and to measure the angles of the edges (provided this is not an area covered in the stone's original cortex). These angular measurements for the edges are made using a goniometer.

It is also possible to take other measurements such as the length of an edge, the piece's weight, the length of the chord described by the edges (if the piece has a transverse terminal bezel) etc. All these measurements allow a number of morphological and technical ratios to be established (for example, the relationship between the weight and the length of the cutting edges, or the relationship between the hammer used to form the piece and the angle obtained etc.).

However, the most commonly used coefficients are those established by Bordes for the morphological-mathematical classification of what he called «classic bifaces» (Balout proposed other indices but they are very similar so it is not necessary to repeat measurements[45]):

Family Threshold
Triangular bifaces (the most regular)
or sub triangular (for the irregular ones)
Almond-shaped bifaces
Oval bifaces
Elongation Threshold
Short bifaces
Common bifaces
Elongated bifaces
Cross section Threshold
Thick bifaces
Flat bifaces

There are other indexes, beyond those that Bordes insists must be applied to what he called classic bifaces. These other indexes apply to the other types of bifaces (partial bifaces, bifaces with an unworked base, or cleaver, spatulate, Abbevillean, nucleiform bifaces etc.).

Types of hand axe

Hand axes are so varied that they do not actually have a single common characteristic… [...] Despite the numerous attempts to classify hand axes, some of which date to the beginning of the [20th] century… their study does not comply completely satisfactorily to any typological list
Gabriel Camps[46]

Taking this into account, the following is to be considered a guide, based on traditional concepts, strongly influenced by the so-called «Bordes method» (a basically morphological classification system used by some schools, which is possibly now out-dated) that may be useful for general use. This classification is sufficiently trustworthy when dealing with classic hand axes,[47] which are, precisely, those that can be defined and catalogued using a system that measures dimensions and mathematical rations, while disregarding nearly all subjective criteria. However, this supposed objectivity is merely a convention adopted by its author, based on his scientific experience[48] and, in the majority of cases, it agrees with previously established categories (although slightly redefining them). It is also possible to find a similar attempt at categorization in Lionel Balout's work.[7]

Group Image Type

The triangular bifaces were initially defined by Henri Breuil as flat based, globular and covered with cortex, with two straight edges, converging at an acute apical zone.[49]
François Bordes later redefined the definition, making it more narrow (op. cit., 1961: pages 58–59). For Bordes a triangular biface is a piece of developed working and balanced morphology; they are flat pieces with three rectilinear or slightly convex edges, they must be flat (m/e > 2.35) and with a short, straight base (base rounding index L/a < 2.5).
Specialists distinguish small variations within these strict limits such as elongated triangular (L/m < 1.6), or pieces with slightly concave edges. Bordes has baptized the latter as «Sharks teeth» for their similarity to the fossilized teeth of Carcharodon megalodon that often appear near to the archaeological sites where these tools have been found. Lastly, there are the sub triangular bifaces, whose general form is similar to a triangle but that are more irregular and less symmetrical.
Triangular bifaces are very scarce in the Lower Palaeolithic (except in the late Acheulean in some French regions) and although they are more common during the Middle Palaeolithic (especially during the phase called Mousterian in the Acheulean Tradition), they virtually disappear without trace. They are rare and at the same time spectacular for their aesthetics.














They are the most common biface in this group, they are defined by their almond shape, symmetrical tendency and metric indices common to this category. Apart from their shape, which gives them their name (amygdala in Latin means almond), they are bifaces of regular length (1.3 < L/m < 1.6), somewhat thick (m/e < 2.35) and with an average base roundness index for this category (2.75 < L/a < 3.75). The base may be unworked or worked. Equally they may have a sharp-pointed or oval apical zone, however, in some cases it may be slightly rounded (and narrow)).
Amygdaloidal bifaces are nearly identical to cordiform bifaces, except that the latter are thick and the former are flat. Amygdaloidal bifaces usually have a course finishing and high-degree of cortex coverage, which is not necessarily an indication of development or chronology.

A cordiform biface is literally identical to the amygdaloidal when seen from the front as it shares the same mathematical parameters (elongation index: 1.3 < L/m < 1.6; and base roundness index: 2.75 < L/a < 3.75), but when seen from the side it is seen to be a flat biface (m/e > 2.35). Occasionally, although this does not form part of its definition, they are objects worked with greater skill, better finished, with less cortex and they are more balanced, they may also have more acute, rectilinear edges making them more efficient.
Their name, which also comes from the Latin (cor means heart), was suggested by Boucher de Perthes in 1857, but did not become generally used until it became used by Henri Breuil, Víctor Commont and Georges Goury in the 1920s.
Bordes defined them mathematically and described them as flat bifaces with rounded, short bases and a pointed or oval terminal zone. He defined eight variants, including an elongated form (L/m > 1.6) and another that is more irregular that has been called Subcordiform. The cordiform bifaces were common in both the Acheulean and the Mousterian.

The lanceate bifaces are the most aesthetically pleasing and have often become the typical image of developed Acheulean bifaces. Their name, obviously, is due to their «similar shape to the blade of a lance» and it was also coined by Boucher de Perthes («lance axe») and it quickly became popular.
Bordes defined a lanceate biface as elongated (L/m > 1.6) with rectilinear or slightly convex edges, extremely acute apex and rounded base (2.75 < L/a < 3.75), they are often globular to the extent that it is not a flax biface (m/e < 2.35), at least in its basal zone.
They are usually balanced, well finished, with perfectly straightened edges formed by careful grinding. They are highly characteristic of the latter stages of the Acheulean – or the Micoquian, as it is known – and of the Mousterian in the Acheulean Tradition (they are closely related to the Micoquian bifaces described below)).
A biface with a lanceate profile that is more coarsely worked and irregular, possibly due to a lack of finishing it is usually called a «ficron style biface» from the French term.[50]


The Micoquian biface receives its name from the French cave of La Micoque in the community of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac (in the Dordogne), which also gave its name to a period at the end of the Acheulean, the Micoquien. This period is characterized by the development of its technology. It is currently thought that the Micoquien was not a separate culture from the Acheulean, but one of its final phases, and that Micoquian bifaces may be one of the few types of biface that can be used as a chronological marker, that is a so-called index fossil. The biface is characteristic of the end of the Acheulean and was developed during the Riss-Würm interglacial period.
Micoquien bifaces are very similar to lanceate ones, they are almond-shaped (2.75 < L/a < 3.75), elongated L/m > 1.6) and thick (m/e < 2.35) with a rounded, often unworked base, but with markedly concave edges and an extremely acute point.
Both lanceate and Micoquian bifaces are usually associated together, in fact it is possible that reiterated sharpening of a lanceate biface gave rise to a Micoquian biface. They are common to all the areas of the Old World.[51]





Discoid bifaces are entirely circular or oval in shape and are characterized by a base rounding index of greater than 3.75 and an elongation index of less than 1.3. They are rounded both at their base as well as at their terminal zone. If their manufactured form is shallow, they are difficult to distinguish from discoid cores of centripetal extraction, or if they are simple bifaces they look like simple flakes that have been retouched or chopping tools made from flakes.
It is common that this type of biface arises from the continuous resharpening of the active region of a longer biface, that slowly becomes shorter, like a pencil. They can also be broken bifaces that have been recycled and reworked.[52]
Discoid bifaces cannot be used as chronological indicators, although particularly finely worked examples appear among the Solutrean culture in Périgord.[44]


Ovoid bifaces are those that are roughly oval (a kind of curve whose description is slightly ambiguous but which is more or less shaped like an egg). They were described very early on: Boucher de Perthes published a definition in 1857 which has been little changed since then.
Bordes stated that ovoid bifaces are similar to discoid one but more elongated (1.3 < L/m < 1.6) and logically they have a base rounding index related to the oval bifaces (greater than 3.75) and both the base and the terminal zone are rounded (if the base is short they are almost symmetrical), although the greatest width should be below the longitudinal midway point.
It has been suggested that ovoid bifaces appeared in the middle of the Acheulean, although they cannot be used for dating purposes and along with the amygdaloids they are the most common type of biface among the Acheulean cultures of the Old World.


Elliptical bifaces are also known as Limandes (from the French word meaning flounder). They have three axes of symmetry, bilateral, bifacial and horizontal. The latter means that if the base is short they are virtually identical at the terminal end, sometimes making it difficult to decide how to orient the piece.
In practice they are equal to the ovoid tools in all their dimensional ratios, except that the elliptical bifaces are usually more elongated (L/m > 1.6) and their maximum width (m) is nearer to their mid length.
Bordes explained that elliptical bifaces are found throughout the Acheulean and into the Mousterian, with the only difference being that the finishing became more careful and balanced over time. Bordes usually differentiated between flat elliptical bifaces (m/e > 2.35, «true Limandes») from thick elliptical bifaces (m/e < 2.35, «Protolimandes»).

Non-classic bifaces

Despite the attempts of many experts to develop a biface typology based on objective data, especially François Bordes and Lionel Balout who used a hand axe's dimensions as criteria, numerous examples still escape classification apart from using systems that require either the subjective or personal judgement of the researcher or which require a lot of professional experience in order to distinguish the relevant factors. For this reason Bordes created the group called «non-classic bifaces» to which mathematic indexes cannot be applied.[53]

Nucleiform biface from the Acheulean site at Torralba, in Soria (Spain).
Some authors count them as cleavers (F. Bordes, 1961, p 63), which J. Chavaillon does not agree with; the carving technique used to create a biface is not in any way similar to the manufacturing process for cleavers
Alimen, 1978, op. cit. page 121.

In reality the multi-use capability of a biface, including this type, conflicts with the technological simplicity of a cleaver, even though their morphology and function may be similar.

Abbevillean style biface from the Acheulean archaeological site of San Isidro, in Madrid (Spain).
Partial biface from the Acheulean strata of the Manzanares valley in Madrid (Spain).
A knapping so incomplete, but so careful, added to the morphology of the core, allows us to talk of a finished hand axe, that was not worked more because it was not necessary, thereby saving energy.
Benito del Rey y Benito Álvarez, page 175.[55]

Tools sometimes categorized as bifaces

Hand axes constitute an important group within the panoply of artefacts from the Lower Palaeolithic, and more particularly the Acheulean. They are particularly important in the open air archaeological sites (L. H. Keelley has suggested that they are less common in cave sites[15]). Due to their size and technological design hand axes have often been considered to be fundamentally different from tools made from flakes (such as racloirs, scrapers and punches etc.) which has led to a distinction being made between the so-called group of flake utensils and group of core utensils. Hand axes, chopping tools and trihedral picks can be considered as core utensils, which were commonly manufactured out of stones, blocks or rock nodules. However this grouping is problematic as all these tools were often also fabricated from flakes, although obviously from large flakes. Another common suggestion is to refer to flake tools as «micro industry», as opposed to the more general size referred to as «macro industry», which includes the tools mentioned above plus the cleavers. However, this scheme also runs into problems as some scrapers are as big as hand axes, or put the other way, there are some hand axes that are as small as scrapers (and the same is true of the other types of tool mentioned). Apart from the above, associating hand axes with chopping tool and cleavers is a problem from any point of view.

Another group of tools commonly associated with hand axes is the biface leafpoint tools from the Lower Palaeolithic and above all from the Middle Palaeolithic in the Old World. The difference between the two types is based on the latter's fine, light finishing that is carried out using a soft hammer and in a more specialized morphology that suggests a specific function, possibly as the point of a projectile or a knife.[57] Representatives of these tools include well known examples from the classic specialized literature:

The term leaf piece should be prefixed to leaf point, as many of them are not pointed. They have been found sporadically in a number of Mousterian sites in France, but they are most common in central European Mousterian sites and African sites from the end of the Aterian
Bordes, 1961, op. cit., page 41

The importance of the hand axe

Many people originally denied that modern day humans evolved from inferior beings. The initial finding of human fossils such as the Neanderthals or of Homo erectus (clumsily interpreted) appear to support the hypothesis that we are descended from ignorant savages that survived solely thanks to their brute force. The hand axe played a very important role in breaking this prejudice. The publications of John Frere, in Britain, and more importantly of Boucher de Perthes, in France, throughout the 19th Century described pieces that were balanced, full of symmetry and crafted with a surprising formal purity. Juan Vilanova i Piera published similar works in Spain during the 19th Century and this work was continued by José Pérez de Barradas and Casiano del Prado at the start of the 20th Century. It was therefore realised that such tools could only have been made by intelligent, even numinous minds with a certain aesthetic:

Art passed through a long formative period before becoming beautiful; but this does not mean that it ever stopped being a sincere and grandiose art, sometime more sincere and grandiose than beautiful; in mankind there is a creative nature that is manifested as soon as its existence is assured. When he was not worried or fearful, this demigod acting in tranquillity, found the material in his surroundings to breathe life into his spirit.
Goethe, Conversations with Eckermann.
Finely worked lanceate hand axe from the San Isidro site near Madrid.

As André Leroi-Gourhan explained,[60] it is important to ask what was understood of art in such distant times, above all taking into account the different psychologies of non-modern humans and ourselves. The archaeological records that he handled led Leroi-Gourhan to be surprised by the rapid progress towards symmetry and balance. He felt that he could recognize beauty in the strictest sense of the word in early prehistoric tools made during the Acheulean:

It seems difficult to admit that these beings did not experience a certain aesthetic satisfaction, they were excellent craftsmen that knew how to choose their material, repair defects, orient cracks with total precision, drawing out a form from a crude flint core that corresponded exactly to their desire. Their work was not automatic or guided by a series of actions in strict order, they were able to mobilize in each moment reflection and, of course, the pleasure of creating a beautiful object.
Leroi-Gourhan, 1977, op. cit. page 35.

However, we should not lose our perspective: many authors only refer to exceptional pieces, the majority of hand axes certainly tended to symmetry, but they do not necessarily awaken a sense of the aesthetic. In the majority of cases of we are talking about a selected series of the most striking pieces, mainly collections that were made during the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th, when a profound lack of knowledge regarding prehistoric technology prevented a clear recognition of human actions in the crudest objects. Other collections were made by aficionados, whose interests were not scientific, so that they only collected the best, those objects they considered to be the most outstanding, abandoning the humbler elements that were sometimes the key to interpreting an archaeological site. However, there are exceptions, there are sites methodically studied by experts where there are abundant hand axes that are magnificently carved, causing the archaeologists to express admiration for those that produced these works:

Such is the perfection of the carving on some hand axes that they give the impression that the artist took great pleasure in them per se, at least apparently, as the working does not make the pieces any more efficient. At any rate, we are unable to pronounce from this remove whether it was art or the utility of the hand axe that was being sought by making them so well. Although, in our heart of hearts we are sure that they were searching for beauty, aesthetics, as they could have achieved the same efficiency with cruder pieces.[61]

The discovery in 1998 of an oval hand axe of excellent workmanship in the Sima de los Huesos in the Atapuerca Mountains mixed in with the fossil remains of Homo heidelbergensis reignited this controversy. Given that this is the only lithic remains from this section of the site (that was possibly a cemetery), combined with the piece's qualities has meant that it received special treatment, it was even baptized Excalibur and it became a star item.[62] However, the symbolic meaning of this example in particular, and hand axes in general, has multiplied in recent years, feeding both scientific and more general debate and literature.

Very large Handaxe from Furze Platt, Berkshire, Great Britain

The opinion of Martín Almagro Basch, a former professor at the Complutense University of Madrid, serves as a counterargument:[63]

Art is always the same, it is only possible to call someone an artist if they know how to create, within objective limits, the equivalent of the numinous complex experienced individually and expressed in a suitable manner in relation to the society in which the artist lives. In this was it is possible to distinguish an essentially artistic piece from a useful tool, although this may also be beautiful. When a prehistoric man was able to achieve the marvels that are the Acheulean axes, he did not make a work of art; nor did he make a work of art when he used his skill and experience to make a house or adapt rock shelters or caves for living or sanctuary.
Martín Almagro

What seems clear in this controversy is that, basically, a hand axe can be interpreted as a sign of intelligence. However, the paradox is that, within the wide range of Acheulean objects, hand axes are one of the simplest tools to make. They do not require as much planning as other types of object, generally made from flakes, that are less striking but without a doubt more sophisticated.

It has been noted above that typical hand axes appeared more than a million years ago.[64] Although it is now known that they are the heritage of a number of human species, with Homo ergaster the earliest, up until 1954 there was no solid evidence regarding who fabricated hand axes: in that year, in Ternifine, Algeria, Camille Arambourg discovered remains that he called "Atlanthropus", along with some hand axes.[65] All the species associated with hand axes (from Homo ergaster to neanderthalensis) show an advanced intelligence that in some cases is accompanied by modern features such as a relatively sophisticated technology, systems to protect against inclement weather (construction of huts, control of fire, clothes), certain signs of spiritual awareness (early indications of art such as adorning the body, carving of bones, ritual treatment of bodies, the development of articulated language) etc. Hand axes should be considered as nothing more than another of the many signs of the intellectual development of primitive humans.


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  29. 1 2 Brézillon, Michel (1985). Dictionnaire de la Préhistoire. Librairie Larousse, Paris. pp. 18–19. ISBN 2-03-075437-4.
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  35. The orientation of a hand axe relates to its morphological axis. This may be difficult to determine as subsequent flaking may have erased evidence of its position. In this case its orientation can be inferred from the marks on the lower face of the tool stone. The position of the heel can describe using a compass rose: a heel located at the base of the hand axe will be referred to as being in the southerly position. If a heel is to one side, its position will be referred to as being in the easterly or westerly position. If the heel was in the position now occupied by the hand axe's point, which will mean that its original location will have been destroyed, this is called the northerly position. It is also possible to assign intermediate positions (south-east, north-west etc.).
  36. Victor Chabai; Jürgen Richter; Thorsten Uthmeier, eds. (2008). Palaeolithic Sites of Crimea, Vol 3 Part 2, Kabazi V: Interstratification of Micoquian and Levallois – Mousterian Camp Sites. University of Cologne. p. 203. ISBN 978-966-650-231-8.
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  40. For Jacques Tixier the reworking sometimes has the objective of sharpening the edge so he uses the term reprise (recovery); however, Lionel Balout uses the term secondary retouch or reworking equally; while François Bordes prefers the word regularization: in Alimen, 1978, op. cit., page 121.
  41. 1 2 Tixier, Jacques (1960). "Les industries lithiques d'Aïn Fritissa (Maroc Oriental)". Bulletin d'Archéologie marocaine, tomo 3. Pages 107-244. p. 119.
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  43. they are the Elongation index, the Sectional index and the Convergence index (op. cit. 1967)
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  46. «Distinguishing between different types of hand axes is not always easy. There is often no room for doubts, however, there are a number of cases where the difficulty is real.» (Bordes, op. cit., 1961, page 49).
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  48. Ficron is a word used by farmers in the Somme region. The ficron is the point of a blade located at the end of a pole that allows peasants to push their boats along canals in flooded fields (Bordes, 1961, op. cit., page 58, nota 1).
  49. Examples of sites where they have been found include such European sites as Valle del Manzanares in Madrid, Spain, Swanscombe in England and La Micoque in France as well as Oum-Qatafa and Tabún in Asia and Sidi-Zin in Africa, among others. Brézillon, Michel (1969). Dictionnaire de la Préhistoire. Éditeur Larousse, Paris. ISBN 2-03-075437-4. Page 156.
  50. Benito Álvarez; José Manuel (2002). Aportaciones al conocimiento del Achelense en la Meseta Norte. Universidad de Salamanca (Tesis Doctoral, inédita). p. 558.
  51. Bordes, François (1961). "Bifaces non classiques, disques, boules polyédriques et bolas". Typologie du Paléolithique ancien et moyen. Impriméries Delmas, Bordeaux. pp. 67–69.
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  55. Bordes, François (1961). "Pièces foliacées bifaces". Typologie du Paléolithique ancien et moyen. Impriméries Delmas, Bordeaux. p. 41.
  56. Sonnevile-Bordes, Denise (1961). L'áge de la pierre. Éditeur P.U.F., collection Qu sais-je?, Paris. p. 106.
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  60. Rivera, Alicia (8 January 2003). "Un hacha hallada en Atapuerca indica que ya había ritos funerarios hace 400.000 años". El País. Retrieved 5 December 2012.
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  62. Some archaeologists such as Chavaillon (op. cit., 1994) have evidence of hand axes that are 1.2 million years old in Melka Kunturé (Ethiopia), but the oldest, from Konso-Gardula, could be 1.9 million years old: Corbella, Josep; Carbonell, Eudald; Moyà, Salvador y Sala, Robert (2000). Sapiens. El largo camino de los homínidos hacia la inteligencia. Barcelona: Ediciones Península S.A. ISBN 84-8307-288-2. External link in |publisher= (help) Page 68.
  63. Arambourg, Camille (1957). Clark, J.D.; Cole, S., eds. "Récentes découvertes de paléontologie humaine réalisées en Afrique du Nord française (L'Atlanthropus de Ternifine – L'Hominien de Casablanca)". Third Panafrican Congress on Prehistory, Livingstone 1955. London, Chatto & Windus: 186–194.


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