Making Hand Axes of Bone Over a Million Years Ago Also Had Spiritual Motive, Archaeologist Posits

Whispers of cosmological meaning can be discerned in the way early humans interacted with prey, argues Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Ran Barkai

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An Acheulean stone hand axe.
An Acheulean stone hand axe.Credit: Joyofmuseums
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Once upon a time in the Lower Paleolithic, an early human in Konso, Ethiopia fashioned a piece of hippopotamus bone into a hand axe, using a quite sophisticated technique. The hominins there were also making an abundance of tools out of stone. The question is why the bone hand axe was made at all, given the difficulty of shaping bone verus stone and the relative fragility of the product, in comparison with stone tools.

A use-wear analysis of the 1.4-million-year-old bone hand axe concluded that it had been used to butcher animal carcasses, Katsuhiro Sano of Japan’s Tohoku University, Gen Suwa of the University of Tokyo and colleagues reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in July. Ergo they conclude it had a practical use, as opposed to previous arguments by other researchers that the unique bone tools had ritual significance.

Prof. Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University, an expert on archaic stone technologies who also engages with understanding the worldviews of early humans, accepts the practical use made of the bone hand axe in processing prey animals. But in a letter to PNAS responding to the hand axe paper, he postulates that it bore dual significance: practical and spiritual.

This ancient bone hand axe was, he posits, a pre-sapiens analogy of latter-day chopsticks. The same applies as well to the many other stone hand axes created over human history, he adds.

Consider the chopstick

The earliest known stone tools go back 3.3 million years. They were crude, heavy hammers and flakes and their makers are yet unknown. About 1.9 million years ago Homo erectus in Africa, the ancestor of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, had embarked on the “Acheulean revolution” – knapping suitable rocks into well designed pear-shaped, pointed bifacial tools, called hand axes.

These were usually made of stone but also, occasionally, of bone, as in the case of the 1.4-million-year-old Konso hand axe. Though bone tools were relatively rare, the specimen in Konso is far from being alone. Hand axes made of megafauna bones have been found in all three continents where hominins thronged – Africa, Asia and Europe.

Prehistoric hand axe made of elephant boneCredit: Giovanni Boschian, University of Pisa

Asked if the rarity of bone tools might be explained by their tendency to decay, compared to stone ones, Barkai points out that at the hominin fossil sites in question archaeologists find plenty of bones, tortoise shells and the like from the prehistoric animals that were eaten. Bone tools would have been preserved as well. So likely indeed, they were special.

The question is why they were made at all. Sano and the team demonstrated unequivocally that the implement was used in carcass processing. Barkai agrees, which does not detract from his long-held theory that archaic humans had relationships of respect with the “megafauna who sustained them and with the cosmos in general.”

Respect for the prey was reflected among other things in the maximal utilization of the carcass, wasting nothing – including in some cases, turning suitable fragments of bones into tools, using their bones instead of firewood, and even (at least in later times) using them as construction material for huts.

The manufacture of the bone hand axe at Konso was evidently not driven by a paucity of suitable stones: such were abundant, Barkai says. He also questions the assumption that it was difficult to create a hand axe from bone, noting that when you shatter a bone to get its marrow, you create pretty impressive sharp flakes. Yet, in his view, “The decision to transform a bone flake into a hand axe, despite stone’s better workability and efficiency in butchery, testifies to an exceptional, conscious act — an act of reverence that sheds light not only on the technological sophistication of the Acheuleans but also on their perception of the world.”

And this brings us to his suggestion of the chopstick as a heuristic model for the bone hand axe, on both practical and symbolic grounds.

Chopsticks are both eating utensils and cultural markers, usually fashioned of bamboo. But rare, exceptional ones are made of precious materials such as gold, rhinoceros horn, antler, ivory, mahogany, or jade, indicative of the dual role chopsticks play in Asian cultures: practical significance as well as symbolic meaning.

Just as the practical use of the chopstick made of an exceptional material does not preclude symbolic meaning, ditto the occasional use of an exceptional hand axe produced intentionally from megafauna bone, he sums up.

Neanderthal tools made of bone.Credit: Naomi L. Martisius / Frido Welke

The elephant in the room

This postulated respect didn’t stop various hominins from driving at least some of the megafauna they ate and possibly revered to extinction. In their defense they might have realized that mammoths vanished from their valley but as early humans were dependent on large herbivores for their necessary caloric intake, it seems they couldn’t stop hunting even when having realized they’d just eaten the last ones.

Apropos elephantids, they are the basis on which Barkai has built his theory of the respectful hunter-gatherers of yore.

Elephants were the perfect package for the archaic human once our brains grew beyond orange-size and became energy-expensive. From Homo erectus a couple of million years ago to the more recent Neanderthal and our ancestor sapiens, all doted on elephantids. The hulking animals have loads of meat, fat – for which we developed a keen metabolic need, and great big bones they could be shattered for marrow. We ate other things but when possible, we ate elephants.

Lyuba, a baby mammoth found incredibly well preserved: The perfect package meal for archaic humansCredit: Matt Dunham / AP

We have also been breaking their bones for marrow for at least a million years, Barkai and colleagues reported in 2019.

In Barkai’s opinion, exploitation of elephantids was actually key to human evolution and the handy-dandy hand axe was developed to butcher them and other large animals.

Further, he believes the proboscideans had a dual dietary and cosmological significance for early humans of the Lower Paleolithic, he writes in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal (to be published).

As for the hand axe, what use any long gone human species or even our direct prehistoric ancestors made of any hand axe, stone or bone, is still speculative but Barkai supports the suggestion they were used by and large to de-flesh and dismember carcasses. He notes that hand axes remained in use for over a million years, an eternity in the terms of human evolution, serving as a sort of reliable crutch while the hominins went on to develop ever-more sophisticated tools, which were used in parallel.

Sano and his team agree with Barkai that African Homo erectus, at 1.4 million years ago, may have been “considerably sophisticated in their cognitive capacities, including potential symbolic perception and behavior,” they write. “Indeed, the technological context of the find suggests a higher level of cognition than previously thought.”

A world of stone

Proof of archaic spirituality is impossible to find but Barkai points to hand axes made of elephant bones, serving as “silent testimony for the elephant-hand-axe ontological nexus.” He notes the presence of the elephant in early human cosmological and symbolic expressions – and notes parallels to contemporary hunter-gatherer groups, which coexist with nature and have a concept of preserving their environment.

An Acheulean hand axe made of flint.Credit: The Portable Antiquities Scheme

And possibly, like at least some contemporary hunter-gatherers – the ontology of the Chippewa Native Americans ascribes animation to rock, under certain circumstances – these hominins ascribed a living spirit to stone, to bone and to the animals on which they depended. To certain hunter-gatherer societies and possibly the early humans too – animals and aspects of the planet itself were other-than-human-persons, capable of thinking, feeling, experiencing and making decisions. To them, “multiple worlds might exist in parallel: a world of humans, a world of animals, a world of stone, a world of mountains, a world of rivers, and so on,” with whom the world of humans had to pay respect in order to coexist and prosper, Barkai writes. More details are to be found in a recently published paper on the significance of elephants for early humans.

And that is also why, he believes, early humans strove to utilize the animal they hunted in full: Not just out of practical necessity but as a token of appreciation, as an act of reciprocity that maintained good relationships between humans and elephants and ensured, in their view, the continuation of the coexistence of both species.

This might seem rather odd to our modern minds, but if such it was, this perception of reciprocity would have persisted for hundreds of thousands of years. And even so, at some point, people cut the branch they were sitting on and drove elephants to extinction in much of their domain, and killed off most of the other remaining megafauna as well.

Today’s hunter-gatherers and likely the hominins of yore viewed the world differently than do Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies, Barkai summarizes. Which begs the question of when we lost our sense of wonder.

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