Olduvai Handaxe

Olduvai Handaxe, from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. 1.4 million years ago. Made of green volcanic lava. From the collection of the British Museum in London, England.

Brief Identification

This Olduvai Handaxe was found in what is modern day Tanzania in the Olduvai Gorge. The stone tool dates to between 1.4 and 1.2 million years ago, and it was used mainly for the cutting of meat and woodworking. It was made from green volcanic lava, and was used by the first prehistoric people who were evolved enough to be truly comparable to modern day humans. The people who invented the tool were also a part of the first large-scale migration in the history of the world.

Technical EvaluationEdit

The Olduvai handaxe was made of green volcanic lava called phonolite. The maker of the tool would have struck the edges of the stone with a rounded pebble, then removed the flakes from the remaining stone to create a symmetrically shaped, sharp object. Phonolite is a difficult igneous rock to cut, but once made it is extremely tough. When cutting it, it splits into thin, tough plates. This was one of the first displays of such an advanced technology: cutting stone into tools, that is. The lava rock came from the nearby volcano now named Ngorongoro, so the material was neither hard to obtain nor expensive.

This handaxe was discovered in 1931 by Louis Leakey and his wife Mary during Leakey's attempt to prove that modern humans' ancestors were several hundred thousand years older than previously thought [See Leakey 2009, xv]. It has been in the British Museum's possession since 1934, only three years after it was discovered.

Local Historical ContextEdit

The Olduvai handaxe, as it has been termed, was found alongside at least three different species of hominids including Australopithecus boisei, Homo habilis, and Homo erectus. Louis Leakey had spent most of his career attempting to prove that Africa was the 'cradle of mankind' and that the earliest hominids had lived hundreds of thousands of years earlier than his contemporaries believed. With the later discovery of the self-termed Zinjanthropus, later becoming better known as the Paranthropus boisei, this finally seemed possible [see Lewis 2002, 85].

Those ancestors of modern day humans created the aforementioned first working tools. They lived during the migration from Africa into the rest of the known world. At this time in prehistory, human ancestors mostly engaged in hunting-gathering. For example, Lewis Binford said that the bones from the large mammals at the Olduvai archaeological site had not been killed by the humans coexisting with them. They had simply been scavenged after the animals' deaths [See Schick 1994, 210]. They did not have known tribes and leaders, nor did they have specific jobs or monetary systems. There is no way of knowing the social stature of the person who made the object, other than to know that he obviously had artisan skills. Whether the object was gifted to someone or kept for the maker's own purposes is a question that cannot be answered with the amount of archaeological evidence available. However, because of some surrounding animal bones with cut marks on them, historians know that the handaxe was strong enough to strip meat from the bones and to cut the hides from the meat, thus it was a utilitarian object made strictly for its usefulness.

Although there is no way of knowing for certain who this tool was made for, Neal Ashton of the British Museum suggested that maybe this particular handaxe was made for a man higher up in the social order. Because of its large shape (almost too big for one's hand) and its two sharp edges (thus there was nowhere to safely hold it), he hinted that it might have been a more aesthetically pleasing object, and a less useful one.

World Historical ContextEdit

This handaxe was one of the first indications that manufactured goods were becoming important to man. It was one of the first manmade tools, and was made to be symmetrical. Later handaxes were even symmetrical on three sides, showing an inclination towards design, not just utility. Because of the hominid remains found alongside the stone tools in the Olduvai Gorge, the archaeological site is a huge source of evidence for human evolution. The handaxe found in the gorge coincided with the first known great migration of human ancestors who moved from Africa into Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, bringing the handaxe with them. According to Nick Ashton, the curator of the British Museum, the handaxe was both the only manmade object that was manufactured for such a long period of time and the only object prior to the 20th century that spread over such a large geographical area. For example, the first evidence for handaxes in Britain was 600,000 years ago, and they were still being used 40,000 years ago by the Neanderthals.

Suggested BibliographyEdit

Leakey, Louis. Olduvai Gorge 1951-1961: Fauna and Background. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Lewis, Roger. "The Old Man of Olduvai Gorge." Smithsonian 33 (2002): 82-88.

Schick, Kathy and Nicholas Toth. Making Silent Stones Speak: Human Evolution and the Dawn of Technology. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Britannica Online, "Homo Erectus,"

Britannica Online, "Human Evolution,"

Britannica Online, "Igneous Rock,"

Britannica Online, "Louis S.B. Leakey,"

Britannica Online, "Phonolite,"

Britannica Online, "Primitive Culture: Settled Hunting and Gathering Societies,"

Britannica Online, "Olduvai Gorge,"

British Museum, "Olduvai Handaxe,"

British Museum, "Episode 3 - Olduvai Handaxe Transcript,"

Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed, "Olduvai Gorge,"

UNESCO, "Ngorongoro Conservation Area,"