Hand axe

Acheulean handaxes from Kent. The types shown are (clockwise from top) cordate, ficron and ovate.
Acheulean handaxes from Kent. The types shown are (clockwise from top) cordate, ficron and ovate.

A hand axe is a bifacial Paleolithic core tool. This kind of axe is typical of the lower (Acheulean) and the middle Palaeolithic (Mousterian) and is the longest used tool of human history.


Handaxes are only found in Africa, Europe and Northern Asia, while South-Asia retained flake-industries (Hoabhinian).

New archaeologic evidence from Baise, China shows that there were also handaxes in eastern Asia.


The older handaxes were produced by direct percussion with a stone hammer and can be distinguished by their thickness and a sinous border. Later ( Mousterian) handaxes were produced with a soft billet of antler or wood and are much thinner, more symmetrical and have a straight border.

An experienced knapper needs less than 15 minutes to produce a handaxe.

Raw materials

Handaxes are mainly made of flint, but rhyolites, phonolites, quartzites and other rather coarse rocks were used as well. Obsidian was rarely used, as the material shatters easily.


Several basic shapes, like cordate, oval, triangular etc. have been distinguished, but their chronological significance is not agreed upon.


As most handaxes have a sharp border all around, there is no agreement about their use. Interpretations range from cutting and chopping tools to digging implements, flake cores, the use in traps and a purely ritual significance, maybe in courting behaviour. An interpretation from William H. Calvin maintains that some of the rounder examples could have served as "killer frisbees" meant to be thrown at a herd of animals at a water hole so as to stun one of them. There are no indications of hafting, and indeed some artifacts are far too large for that. Thus a thrown hand axe would not usually have penetrated deeply enough to cause very serious injuries. Nevertheless it could have been an effective weapon for defence against predators.


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