Guide to Patagonia's Monsters & Mysterious beings

I have written a book on this intriguing subject which has just been published.
In this blog I will post excerpts and other interesting texts on this fascinating subject.

Austin Whittall

Thursday, April 17, 2014

On Acheulean hand axes in America

Biface hand axes are a clear indication of primitive hominin presence in a given area. These stone tools have been in use for over 2.6 Million years, the longest-used tools of mankind.

Modern use (i.e. roughly since 20 kya) has been more limited since H. sapiens developed better lithic technologies which relegated the hand axe to some very specific uses in certain parts of the world.

Today's post looks into the following hypothesis: Since primitive humans did not have the knowhow to make advanced tools. If these "primitive" tools are found in a context where "more advanced" toolage is absent, it means that we have found an "archaic" human site.

In the Old World, these tools are associated with many pre-sapiens hominids (H. habilis, H. erectus and Neanderthals), and when they are found, the presence of these humans is accepted without any questions. However, when they are found in America... things are different.

I wrote a brief post on this subject (Ancient Bifacial tools in Argentina), but decided to expand it. Today's post is the outcome:

The hand-axe

First, let's take a look at the biface hand-axe.

The hand axe is a simple artifact it is a flint or obsidian pebble which has been shaped into a two-faced (hence its name, bifacial), almond shaped core by pressure or percussion knapping on its original surface to remove stone flakes (more on this below). They were the first prehistoric man-made tools to be recognized as such, though it was not clear what they were used for.

Its shape (axe-like) gave the impression that it was manufactued to be used as that, a primitive, coarse axe, to chop, cut, tear, dig for tubers, bugs and small animals. While ohers believe that it was thrown at prey to stun or kill them.

We may never know for sure what its exact purpose was. It may have had symbolic or religious connnotations too.

More on the hand-axe

These axes have a longitudinal axis symmetry with a pointed tip and a rounded base (that is why they are called axes), the round area is believed to have been the part which fit into the palm of the hand of the user.

The oldest ones date back to 2.6 mya (and even earlier), and were found in Ethiopia, they are known as "Oldowan" tools, and were made by Homo habilis, the first hominid tool-makers. [1]

The hand-axe technology remained in use for millions of years and evolved into Acheulean toolage 1.4 mya (of H. erectus and later Neanderthal) and Mousterian tools of the Neanderthals.

See some real Neanderthal axes here, these are from Eurasia. Below you will see others, from America, supposedly made by modern humans.

At its height some 200 - 125 kya. Later, during the Middle Paleolithic, it was found all across Africa, Europe and Asia, even in Southern Asia, where previously it was believed to have been absent -bamboo tools were believed to have been used there instead of stone ones (The "Movius Line" marked the limit of the Acheulean tools of Western Asia).

With the appearance of modern humans, it declined and during the last glacial period became quite infrequent.

It has also been found in America, together with Folsom and Clovis lithic technologies and also, in other context. It is said that it is virtually unknown in Australia [1], but that is not the case: large bifacial axes were used by Aboriginals until recently in ritual combats and by women, to dig roots and yams and date back to 34 kya. [12]

Let's take a closer look at the Americas:

The "Late" peopling of America

Despite being quite infrequent after the Last Ice Age, it is found in America, which was peopled precisely after the Last Ice Age (according to orthodoxy). Why is this so? Primitive tool among modern H. sapiens hunters in America?

To work around the obvious incongruity of a "primitive" axe in the context of modern Neolithic tools, the American archaeologists came up with a novel theory:

Based on the fact that to shape it, it had to be knapped and flint flakes were produced; they assumed that it was used as a blank, portable source for fresh flint tools: carried around by the hunter groups, and knapped when needed in sites where no suitable raw materials could be found to fashion stone tools from it.

The core with a hand-axe shape, was just a source of other tools.

This notion has permeated American archaeology. Below are some examples:


Hand axes and "cores" were found in 1980 at the Terraza de El Cayude iste (11° 48’ 024" N, 69&deG; 56’ 621" W.), close to Sant Ana, Venezuela. Because they have been found associated to Clovis tools in North America, they were described as "Clovisoid" tools and of course, the Clovis comparison put a limit to the antiquity of these tools: they were assigned an age of 8 to 11 kya. Below are to images of these tools: [6]

bifacial chert axe
Bifacial Chert axe. [6]

Amigdaloid stone tools
amigdaloid bifacial artifacts. [6]

They do look rather primitive to me. Since they were not dated directly, they could even be quite old. They surface as erosion wears the soil away, exposing them.

The authors quickly identified them as axes yet, were struck by the rigid orthodoxy imposed by the Clovis peopling supporters and embraced the notion too: [6]

"We were surprised that in the excellent book by Anthony T. Boldurian and John L. Cotter: Clovis Revisited published in 1999, they do not refer to them as axes. They display the drawing of a very beautiful axe and catalogue it as a "portable bifacial core" which hunters transported to remote locations, where they hunted, far from any source of raw material. And, if they needed a knife or a spear point, they could use the portable core to obtain it. They added: 'and if they did not need it, they could bury it or store it inside the territory for future use'. (Boldurian & Cotter, 109; 1999. Free translation)." [6]

They went on to add that they believed that the five cores they found which were not bifacial aces, were used as a source for raw material for other tools. They describe the axes as being 18 cm long, 14 cm wide, 1.8 cm thick and weighing 600 g, (7 in, 5.5 in, 0.7 in, 1.3 lb.), and assumed that they were used for butchering their megafaunal prey.


Harami Fujita describes axes found at the El Pulguero site, 25 km northeast of La Paz, in front of the Espíritu Santo Island, Baja California Sur, Mexico. [2][3]

Below are two images of these axes:

axe or preform
Axe Preform, El Pulguero. From: [3]

hand axe
Biface, El Pulguero. From: [2]

The site is a "quarry", not a settlement or a temporary camp, it is the place where the stones were quarried between A.D. 1000 and 1700. Yet the region has been occupied at least since 8,000 kya.

Fujita calls the hand-axes "preforms". Plenty were found (78 in total), measuring on average 18.5 cm long, 9,2 cm wide and 4,2 cm thick (7.3 in, 3.6 in, 1.7 in).

She writes that there is "lack evidence of final biface work. No retouch marks by pressure were observed in these preforms..." [3]. And adds:

"The end use of bifacial preforms of El Pulguero is not resolved yet. We do not have sufficient evidence which indicates the function of these artifacts. However, these artifacts could have been used to cut specific plants to make wood and bone objects, including rafts, paddles, dart-throwers, harpoons, spears, ceremonial boards, awls, spatulas, and cooking implements [...] The final stages of tool manufacture and use occurred in other places. We think that bifacial performs were much easier to transport farther than the raw material. The lack of finished elongated bifaces and pressure work on the edges of these artifacts support this interpretation... [3]

Since they are lying on the surface dating is uncertain, they may be much older than inferred by Fujita (more on this below). Furthermore the lack of sharp retouch edges could be due to erosion over a long period of time. These tools look old and are coarse because they were made by less skilled hominids than modern humans.

What Fujita does not address is why would these "preforms" be left behind, at the quarry. Weren't they intended to be carried around as portable sources of new tools? [5]

Robert Gargett comments that: "from personal observation that Baja has plenty of similar 'Acheulean' archaeological occurrences" [4] and that he met other archaeologists at UC Berkely, (Garniss Curtis, Carl Swisher, Don Johanson and Bill Kimball) who "mentioned a tray of hand axes that had been collected in Baja California" [4].


Hand Axes were found at Topper site, in S. Carolina, and the image below shows them [4]

Topper site stone tools
"Preforms" from Topper Site, South Carolina. Source [4], citing [9]

There is another site, G. S. Lewis- East, along the Savannah River, also in S. Carolina. [11]. Which has what is referred to as "biface preforms" of Kirk period some 9,000 rcybp. But the way that these preforms can be turned into other tools is not very clear [4].

These sites described above are all very "recent" and none is older than 11 kya. All are assigned to modern Neolithic humans. But why would they and not their Eurasian counterparts be the only H. sapiens to carry around "preforms" with them?

The "Acheulean-in-the-Old-World" Bias

When discussing Fujitas findings at El Pulguero I mentioned that they were superficial findings and dating was uncertain, they could be in fact much older than inferred by her. Below is a similar point of view expressed about South East Asian Acheulean bifacial tools which were not recognised as such: [7] (bold mine)

"It is traditionally argued by proponents of the Movius Line that ‘true’ Acheulean bifaces, especially handaxes, are only found in abundance in Africa and western Eurasia, whereas in eastern Asia, in front of the ‘line’, these implements are rare or absent altogether..."
.... in Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the Far East, where bifaces are common as undated surface finds but, lacking a dated context, are routinely considered products of modern human cultures. Dating African and western Eurasian surface finds as Acheulean while dismissing similar Southeast Asian and Far Eastern artefacts is a case of shifting the goalposts, one that potentially distorts Acheulean evidence in the Palaeolithic Old World..."

The above is, in my opinion, valid for America: Acheulean tools are not recognised as such when found in the New World. Instead they are interpreted as "preforms" or "bifacial blanks" made by modern Neolithic humans.

That is what Ebert (1992:78, [10]) did, when he reclassified some evidently Acheulean tools found in Green River Valley, Wyoming, as blanks or preforms for other tools.

However, a close look at some of these tools, as depicted by the first European to see them, William A. Jones in 1873, is quite interesting, they have in my opinion, a "Levalloisian" appearance, which is a clear Neanderthal hallmark:

Levallois stone tools are made by flaking the flint stone to shape it like a tortoise shell (which is what I see in the image below). The Neanderthals developed this technology about 250 kya and it evolved into the Mousterian technology some 100 kya.

green river stone tools
Two different tools from Green River, From. [8].

The Green River basin tools were assumed to be recent even though Jones remarked that the contemporary Indians had no knowledge about who made them, a clear indication of an ancient origin.

Of course some of these tools were found close to other more modern tools. But, I believe that since nobody is actually looking for a Neanderthal-made tool in America, they will always be classified as made by H. sapiens. No one really bothers to verify their antiquity (that is +40 kya) and they are always taken as being some 10 kya!.


[1] Boyd, Robert (2008). How Humans Evolved. New York: W. W. Norton & Company
[2] Harami Fujita and Gema Poyatos de Paz, (2008). Prehistoric Quarrying and stone tool production at El Pulguero, Baja California sur, Mexico. Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly, 39 (2 & 3)
[3] Harami Fujita, (2009). Rhyolite bifacial preform production at El Pulguero a prehistoric Quarry and workshop site in the Cape region of Baja California. SCA Proceedings, Volume 22 (2009).
[4] Gargett, Robert H. Saturday, 19 January 2013, More North American 'Hand Axes'. The Subversive Archaeologist is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
[5] op cit. Friday, 18 January 2013. And The Winner Is... Biface!
[6] Miklos Szabadics Roka, (2010), Puntas Clovis en Venezuela. Cazadores especializados Clovis en Paraguaná, Edo Falcón Venezuela.
[7] Brumm, A. & Moore, M. W. (2012). Biface distributions and the Movius Line: A Southeast Asian perspective. Australian Archaeology, (74), 32-46.
[8] Jones William Albert et alReport upon the reconnaissance of northwestern Wyoming, including Yellowstone national park, made in the summer of 1873. pp. 260.
[9] Ashley M. Smallwood, (2010). Clovis biface technology at the Topper site, South Carolina: evidence for variation and technological flexibility. Journal of Archaeological Science 37:2413-2425
[10] Ebert, J.I., (1992). Distributional Archaeology. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
[11] Kenneth E. Sassaman, Randy Daniel and Christopher R. Moore, (2002). G.S. Lewis-East: Early and Late Archaic Occupations Along the Savannah River, Aiken County, South Carolina. South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina.
[12] Mark W. Moore, (2003). Australian Aboriginal biface reduction techniques on the Georgina River, Camooweal, Queensland. Australian Archaeology, Number 56, 2003

Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia Copyright 2009-2014 by Austin Whittall © 
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