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Early Prehistoric Handaxes

Early Prehistoric Handaxes

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Early Prehistoric Handaxes - History

Archaeological and environmental evidence provides the only clues about the lifestyle and living conditions of the people who lived in and around Dartford during the early Prehistoric period. It is not known exactly when human groups first made their way into what is now Britain, but it was probably c. 450,000 B.C. This is quite late in the spread of the human species.

Early humans (hominids) had been living in the world's equatorial zone since about four million years B.C. By about one million years B.C. a fairly advanced hominid species known as Homo erectus had spread throughout Africa, Asia, and southern Europe.

Traces of early 'man' (including women!) in Britain suggest occasional visits during the warmer periods within the Anglian glaciation, and during what is known as the Hoxnian interglacial period. Two distinct early Prehistoric cultures can be recognised in the Dartford area hundreds of thousands of years old. Each culture had its own different tool-making technologies. These cultural traditions are known as the Clactonian and the Acheulian.

Clactonian flake tools
Picture credit: English Nature and Kent County Council


The Clactonian Culture is named after a superb collection of Prehistoric material found on a site close to Clacton-on-Sea in Essex. At Swanscombe, near Dartford, the deposits known locally as the 'Lower Gravels' contained distinctive Clactonian-style tools, suggesting that a Clactonian tribe had established a riverside campsite in the area over 400,000 years ago.

Members of the Clactonian tribe made distinctive tools from flint flakes struck from larger nodules ('cores') of flint. Some of these tools are very crude. Others show a slightly higher standard of craftsmanship, particularly flint cores worked to a rough edge for use as choppers or chopping tools.

Riverside sites like that at Swanscombe seem to have been especially favoured by these early Clactonian people. Wild animals came to drink on the banks of the river channels, and could be easily hunted. The river environment also provided a rich variety of plants and aquatic species.

Pollen samples taken from the Lower Gravels at Swanscombe suggest that reed swamps, fen habitats and light woodland surrounded the site. Animals found in the area at the time included straight-tusked elephants, fallow deer, horse, wild ox, red deer and rhinoceros.


The 300,000 year-old 'Swanscombe Skull' retrieved from Barnfield Pit in Craylands Lane, Swanscombe, is world-famous. The original skull is housed at the Natural History Museum in London. A replica taken from the original skull is on permanent display at Dartford Borough Museum. This skull (in three separate pieces) was that of a young woman who belonged to a tribe of nomadic hunters associated with the Acheulian Culture.

Click image for larger photos of Swanscombe Skull and map of site

Picture credit: English Nature and Kent County Council

The Acheulian Culture had its own distinctive tradition of tool-making which was very different from the earlier Clactonian Culture. These Acheulian tribespeople made distinctive hand-axes by shaping a large nodule of flint to the required shape. Early examples were fashioned using a stone hammer. Hand-axes were multi-purpose tools used variously as knives, choppers, axes and digging tools in various domestic and hunting activities. Other tools manufactured included less-pointed hand-axes (cleavers) as well as scrapers and trimmed flakes.

Environmental evidence from Barnfield Pit suggests that these Acheulian tribespeople lived in relatively open grassland conditions as evidenced by the large number of horse and wild ox remains retrieved from the site. Fossil pollen indicates that hazel, alder, pine and oak trees bordered the river.

Archaeologists have deduced that in a scavenging, hunting and food-gathering economy, the tribe of people frequenting the Swanscombe area would have been limited to twenty to fifty people at the most. A tribal group like this would need a considerable range of territory in order to survive.

Whether this small group was an 'extended family' with occasional intermingling with other groups is not known. It is unlikely that they ever stayed in one place very long, although certain well-favoured places such as Swanscombe may have attracted longer settlement over periods of weeks or months, or even seasonal.

The riverside at Swanscombe seems to have been more of an activity area than a residential area, where animals were skinned and butchered, and where hand-axes were manufactured and used over many hundreds of years. These tribespeople would also have made things from wood, hide and bone - including spears and containers for collecting food. Other Acheulian riverside sites have been found at Stoke Newington (London), Hitchin (Hertfordshire), Ipswich (Suffolk), Hoxne (Suffolk) and Marks Tey (Essex).

Acheulian hand-axes have been found throughout the Dartford area, suggesting that these early tribespeople hunted over a wide area, and that their activities were not solely restricted to riverside sites.

16,700-Year-Old Tools Found in Texas Change Known History of North America

Archaeologists in Texas have found a set of 16,700-year-old tools which are among the oldest discovered in the West. Until now, it was believed that the culture that represented the continent’s first inhabitants was the Clovis culture. However, the discovery of the ancient tools now challenges that theory, providing evidence that human occupation precedes the arrival of the Clovis people by thousands of years.

According to the Western Digs , archeologists discovered the tools about half an hour north of Austin in Texas, at the site called Gault. They were located a meter deep in water-logged silty clay. The site contained more than 90 stone tools and some human remains including fragments of teeth.

Excavations being carried out at the Gault site, Texas. Credit: Archaeological Institute of America

The discovery changes everything people have been taught about the history of North America – that is, that the Clovis culture represented the first inhabitants of the continent. The results of the research were presented at the meeting of the Plains Anthropological Conference in 2015.

A hallmark of the toolkit associated with the Clovis culture is the distinctively shaped, fluted stone spear point, known as the Clovis point. These Clovis points were from the Rummells-Maske Cache Site, Iowa ( public domain ).

In the 1990s, at the same excavation site near Austin, archeologists unearthed tapered-oval spear heads dating back 13,000 years. Those times, they believed, belonged to the oldest widespread culture of the continent. However, the most recent discovery proves that the pre-Clovis inhabitants came to North America at least three millennia earlier.

The Gault site was identified in the 1920s. However, researches didn't accomplish any significant discovery until the 1990s. In 2012, researchers were interested in finding new artifacts related to the Clovis culture. However, they found something even much more impressive – the enamel caps of four adjacent teeth from a young adult female. It allowed them to use the radiocarbon dating method. The results were surprising. They revealed that the tools and artifacts, found in the same layer as the teeth, which includes more than 160,000 stone flakes left over from the tool-making processs, are evidence of the oldest known inhabitants of America. To finally confirm how old the artifacts are, Dr. D. Clark Wernecke, director of the Gault School of Archaeological Research, and his colleagues submitted 18 of the artifacts to a lab for optically stimulated luminescence dating. It is a process of analyzing tiny grains in the soils to reveal when they were last exposed to sunlight. The results proved that the artifacts were up to 16,700 years old. The tools also showed different features to the Clovis tools, which are distinctively shaped.

The pre-Clovis artifacts include more than 90 stone tools, such as bifaces and blades, and more than 160,000 flakes left over from the point-making process. (Photo courtesy Gault School of Archaeological Research)

Many aspects of the technology of this mysterious tribe, like how they made biface blades, were very similar to the Clovis. It seems that the blade technology did not change a lot, the Clovis only improved it. It suggests a mysterious connection between the two cultures. The discovery brought a lot of important information, including the conclusion that the diversity of artifacts uncovered at the Gault site shows that the continent’s earliest peoples were not a static or monolithic group. Moreover, they shed light on the history of human migration. The discovery proved that the first peoples in the Americas were more similar to modern people, than we believed. According to Wrencke they were “intelligent, inventive, creative — and they found ways to adapt to a rapidly changing world.”

April Holloway from Ancient Origins reported in 2014 about different evidence of pre-Clovis inhabitants in America. She wrote:

''A fisherman inadvertently dragged up one of the most significant pieces of evidence for the existence of ancient inhabitants of North America prior to the Clovis people, who walked the land some 15,000 years ago. A small wooden scallop trawler was dredging the seafloor off the coastline of Chesapeake Bay, when he hit a snag. When he pulled up his net, he found a 22,000-year-old mastodon skull and a flaked blade made of a volcanic rock called rhyolite. A report in Live Science says that the combination of the finds may suggest that people lived in North America, and possibly butchered the mastodon, thousands of years before people from the Clovis culture, who are widely thought to be the first settlers of North America and the ancestors of all living Native Americans.

The mastodon and stone tool finding further supports the perspective that there were other inhabitants of America that preceded the Clovis. The ancient fossil and tool were first hauled off the seafloor in 1974, and were donated to Gwynn's Island Museum in Virginia, where they sat unnoticed for four decades. However, scientists have now realised the significance of the items after Dennis Stanford, an archaeologist with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., carried out radiocarbon dating on the mastodon tusk and found it was more than 22,000 years old. While the stone tool cannot be dated, the characteristics of the artifact suggest it is also of the same age.''

Top image: Paleo-Indians of North America. Source: North Wind Picture Archives

Our earliest technology?

Made nearly two million years ago, stone tools such as this are the first known technological invention.

This chopping tool and others like it are the oldest objects in the British Museum. It comes from an early human campsite in the bottom layer of deposits in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Potassium-argon dating indicates that this bed is between 1.6 and 2.2 million years old from top to bottom. This and other tools are dated to about 1.8 million years.

Using another hard stone as a hammer, the maker has knocked flakes off both sides of a basalt (volcanic lava) pebble so that they intersect to form a sharp edge. This could be used to chop branches from trees, cut meat from large animals or smash bones for marrow fat—an essential part of the early human diet. The flakes could also have been used as small knives for light duty tasks.

Deliberate shaping

To some people this artifact might appear crude how can we even be certain that it is humanly made and not just bashed in rock falls or by trampling animals? A close look reveals that the edge is formed by a deliberate sequence of skillfully placed blows of more or less uniform force. Many objects of the same type, made in the same way, occur in groups called assemblages which are occasionally associated with early human remains. By contrast, natural forces strike randomly and with variable force no pattern, purpose or uniformity can be seen in the modifications they cause.

Chopping tools and flakes from the earliest African sites were referred to asOldowan by the archaeologist Louis Leakey. He found this example on his first expedition to Olduvai in 1931, when he was sponsored by the British Museum.

Handaxes were still in use there some 500,000 years ago by which time their manufacture and use had spread throughout Africa, south Asia, the Middle East and Europe where they were still being made 40,000 years ago. They have even been found as far east as Korea in recent excavations. No other cultural artifact is known to have been made for such a long time across such a huge geographical range.

Handaxes are always made from stone and were held in the hand during use. Many have this characteristic teardrop or pear shape which might have been inspired by the outline of the human hand.

The beginnings of an artistic sense?

Although handaxes were used for a variety of everyday tasks including all aspects of skinning and butchering an animal or working other materials such as wood, this example is much bigger than the usual useful size of such hand held tools. Despite its symmetry and regular edges it appears difficult to use easily. As language began to develop along with tool making, was this handaxe made to suggest ideas? Does the care and craftsmanship with which it was made indicate the beginnings of the artistic sense unique to humans?


Los bifaces de aristas sinuosos del Pleistoceno Medio en Gran Bretaña y sus implicaciones en las variaciones culturales a escala regional y la historia de los grupos homínidos achelenses , por Mark White, Nick Ashton, y David Bridgland

Una mejor comprensión del marco cronológico para el Pleistoceno Medio de Gran Bretaña ha permitido a los arqueólogos detectar una serie de conjuntos-tipo restringidos temporalmente, no basados en esquemas “histórico-culturales” de progresión tipológica, sino en métodos independientes de datación y en marcos estratigráficos seguros, especialmente a partir de las secuencias de terrazas fluviales. Esto incluye un patrón consistente en el tiempo de las industrias clactonienses y levallois, así como varios tipos de conjuntos con bifaces que pertenecen a diferentes ciclos interglaciales. En otras palabras, las apreciaciones de Derek Roe de que la ausencia de un patrón cultural coherente se debía a un marco cronológico impreciso e inadecuado eran correctas. Algunas de estas variaciones en la forma de los bifaces es culturalmente significativa. En este artículo nos centramos en los bifaces ovoides de aristas sinuosas, que previamente habíamos adscrito al MIS 11. Los recientes descubrimientos nos han permitido refinar nuestras correlaciones. Los conjuntos ovoides de perfil sinuoso se encuentran en diferentes regiones de Gran Bretaña y en diferentes subestadios del MIS 11 (en East Anglia en el MIS 11c y en el sur del Támesis en el MIS 11a), el Támesis y el intervalo frío del MIS 11b que separa los dos hechos. Estas pautas tienen el potencial de revelar mucha información sobre los patrones de asentamiento de los homínidos, su comportamiento y las redes sociales durante el Pleistoceno medio.

Ancient 'giant' handaxes raise questions about mobility of prehistoric European populations

An exceptionally high density of &lsquogiant&rsquo handaxes has been uncovered at an archaeological site in Spain, the first such discovery outside Africa.

An international team of researchers, including Griffith University&rsquos Dr Mathieu Duval and the University of Adelaide&rsquos Dr Martina Demuro and Dr Lee Arnold, has performed a comprehensive study on the site, named Porto Maior, in the Miño River basin in north-west Spain.

Their findings have now been published in open-access journal Scientific Reports.

The study, led by E. Méndez-Quintas of Spain&rsquos National Research Centre for Human Evolution (CENIEH), may suggest the coexistence of at least two different human groups in the Iberian Peninsula about 200,000 to 300,000 years ago.

The excavation of fluvial sediments at the site comprised a total of about 3700 lithic artefacts, 290 of which were used in the assemblage &ndash primarily composed of &ndash of Large Cutting Tools (LCTs) studied by the researchers.

Dating the axes, which measure about 18 centimetres long, was performed by the Australian team members, with Dr Duval conducting Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) testing, and Drs Demuro and Arnold conducting luminescence dating.

&ldquoWe applied the two dating techniques in an entirely independent way,&rdquo Dr Duval &ndash a member of Griffith&rsquos Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution (ARCHE) &ndash said.

&ldquoWe were quite pleased to realise that we obtained highly consistent results. This gave us good confidence in our dating work and enabled us to produce a robust chronology for Porto Maior.&rdquo

The researchers&rsquo results indicate that the lithic tool-bearing deposits date to between 293,000 and 205,000 years ago, raising questions regarding the origin and mobility of prehistoric populations in Europe during the Middle Pleistocene (between 773,000 and 125,000 years ago).

According to laboratory analyses, the handaxes &ndash which are characteristic of so-called Acheulean technology due to their distinctive shape &ndash were not configured on-site, but brought from elsewhere.

The high density of tools found at Porto Maior parallels trends at Acheulean sites in Africa and the Near East, reinforcing the possibility of an African origin for the Acheulean tradition of south-west Europe.

While the age of the Porto Maior site is consistent with previous findings on the Iberian Peninsula with respect to the expansion of the Acheulean tradition, there is also evidence of completely different tool assemblages being used across Spain during the same era.

The researchers say that the technological overlap suggest the co-existence of culturally distinct human populations of different geographical origins.

&ldquoThe African affinities of the LCT assemblage at Porto Maior may be consistent with a technology brought in by an &lsquointrusive&rsquo population, which differed from the core and flake industries of established human groups in south-west Europe,&rdquo Dr Arnold said.

Added Dr Demuro: &ldquoThese chronological findings have important implications for understanding the complex human occupation history of the continent.&rdquo

Hand axes unearthed in Kenya are oldest advanced stone tools ever found

A rare haul of picks, flakes and hand axes recovered from ancient sediments in Kenya are the oldest remains of advanced stone tools yet discovered.

Archaeologists unearthed the implements while excavating mudstone banks on the shores of Lake Turkana in the remote north-west of the country.

The largest of the tools are around 20cm long and have been chipped into shape on two sides, a hallmark of more sophisticated stone toolmaking techniques probably developed by Homo erectus, an ancestor of modern humans.

Trenches dug at the same site revealed remains of long-gone species that shared the land with those who left the tools behind. Among them were primitive versions of hippopotamuses, rhinos, horses, antelopes, and dangerous predators such as big cats and hyenas.

The stone tools, made for crushing, cutting and scraping, gave early humans a means to butcher animal carcasses, strip them of meat and crack open their bones to expose the nutritious marrow.

Researchers dated the sediments where the tools were found to 1.76m years old. Until now, the earliest stone tools of this kind were estimated to be 1.4m years old and came from a haul in Konso, Ethiopia. Others found in India are dated more vaguely, between 1m and 1.5m years old.

Older, cruder stone tools have been found. The most ancient evidence of toolmaking by early humans and their relatives dates to 2.6m years ago and includes simple pebble-choppers for hacking and crushing. These Oldowan tools, named after the Olduvai gorge in Tanzania, were wielded by our predecessors for around a million years.

But the latest collection of stone tools from Kenya belong to a second, more advanced generation of toolmaking. Known as Acheulian tools after a prominent archaeological site in France, they are larger, heavier and have sharp cutting edges that are chipped from opposite sides into the familiar teardrop shape.

Most Acheulian stone tools have been recovered from sites alongside fossilised bones of Homo erectus, leading many archaeologists to believe our ancestors developed the technology as an improvement on the Oldowan toolmaking skills they inherited.

"The Acheulian tools represent a great technological leap," said Dennis Kent, a geologist involved in the study at Rutgers University in New Jersey and Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York.

Writing in the journal Nature, a team of researchers led by Kent's colleague Christopher Lepre describe finding the stone tools in a region called Kokiselei in the Rift Valley. The site is close to where several spectacular human fossils have been found, including Turkana Boy, an early human teenager who lived 1.5m years ago.

Unearthing the tools has raised fresh questions about the skills possessed by different groups of H. erectus as they spread across the globe. Lepre's team found both Oldowan and Acheulian stone tools at Kokiselei, but no evidence for advanced stone tools has been found at a site occupied by H. erectus 1.8m years ago in Dmanisi in Georgia. This, Kent said, presents a problem if H. erectus originated in Africa and migrated to Asia, as many archaeologists believe. "Why didn't Homo erectus take these tools with them to Asia?"

One radical explanation offered by researchers is that H. erectus originated in Asia instead of Africa. Another possibility is that groups migrating from Africa into Asia lost the skills to make Acheulian tools along the way.

"In terms of the Out of Africa event, new dating of the Dmanisi site in Georgia places some of the material from there older than 1.8m years ago, so it is evident that human emergence from Africa preceded even this new date for bifacial tools. In fact some researchers believe the first exodus from Africa could have been even earlier than the date for Dmanisi, by a pre-erectus population making Oldowan tools," he said.

"In the deep past, with small populations that were prone to local or wider extinctions, innovations did not always take hold and spread. Novelties like blade tools and bows and arrows may have been invented and reinvented many times over, due to the loss of individuals and populations, and the knowledge they carried.

"So we cannot be sure that the tools found at Kokiselei were really the beginning of the establishment of the Acheulian. Populations could have experimented with bifacial working many times before it took hold more widely around 1.6m years ago."


Tools from the Acheulean cuture are characterised by symmetrically knapped stones and are the first sophisticated handaxe technology known in early Europe.

While Acheulean sites are widespread across the continent, Porto Maior represents Europe's first extensive accumulation of large cutting tools (LCTs) in the Acheulean tradition.

'This is just another bit of evidence that shows some of these advanced behaviours such as making large handaxes are not something exclusive to one species', said Dr Lepre.

'Our predecessors were capable of a wider range of behaviours than previously thought', he said.

Until now, such high densities of LCTs had only been found in Africa.

'Porto Maior introduces further complexity to this overlapping technological pattern, and suggests that distinct early human populations of different geographical origins coexisted during the Middle Pleistocene (between 773,000 and 125,000 years ago)', researchers, led by Dr Martina Demuro, a research fellow at the University of Adelaide wrote in the Conversation.

The find reinforces the idea human groups from different origins and evolutionary stages coexisted across Europe as the emergence of Neanderthals was taking place


It is hard for scientists to say precisely when humans started making tools because the more primitive remains look like a natural object rather than a human artefact.

The oldest-known instruments are the Oldowan stone tools from Ethiopia, which date back about 2.6 million years.

The Acheulean tool technology period - up to 1.76 million years ago - featured large stone hand axes made from flint and quartzite.

Towards the end of this period, the tools became more refined and then followed the so-called Levallois technique, which saw the creation of scrapers, slicers, needled and flattened needles.

About 50,000 years ago more refined and specialised flint tools were made and used by Neanderthals and it is believed it was at this stage tools were constructed out of bone.

As human culture advanced, artefacts such as fish hooks, buttons and bone needles were used.

Cut marks have found on animal bones that have been dated to be 3.4 million years old - around the time that a squat ape-like ancestor called Australopithecus afarensis - known as Lucy - roamed Africa.

In total, 3,698 discarded artefacts were recovered from river sediments at the site, 101 of which were LCTs that were on average 18cm long with a maximum length of 27cm.

This is exceptionally large considering most handazes are typically 8-15cm long.

'Conventional interpretation of such large handaxes usually focuses on the idea that they were used for ceremonial purposes', Dr Lepre said.

'Normally when we see exceptionally large tools they are not use for digging or processing food. They are symbolic.

However, Dr Lepre dismissed the idea that these giant tools could have belonged to larger people.

Laboratory analyses indicate that the tools, found in the area in Galicia, northwest Spain, were used to process hard materials such wood and bone and breaking up of carcasses

'There's not much evolution of the human body going on since then - most of what you see today was present back then. Our size and statue has not changed'.

At 9.5 pieces per m², the density of the Acheulean stone tool accumulation is one of the highest recorded globally.

'The Spanish site of Porto Maior clearly resembles extensive accumulations of very large tools previously only seen in Africa and the Near East', researchers wrote.

'These similarities reinforce the idea of an African origin for the Acheulean tradition of southwest Europe.'

Researchers say they could also have had a symbolic role - and although they are double the size of most handaxes the people that used them would have been no larger than people today

The archaeological site at Porto Maior in Galicia is home to these ancient tools which were part of the Acheulean culture. Tools from the Acheulean cuture are characterised by symmetrically knapped stones and are the first sophisticated handaxe technology known in early Europe

Researchers used post-infrared infrared stimulaed luminescence dating and electron spin resonance to date the tools.

This technique provided researchers with an estimate of the last time sand grains in the sedient was exposed to sunlight.

This gives an idea of when the site was last occupied.

'The specific type of Acheulean tools described at Porto Maior is exclusive to southwest Europe, suggesting that the technology was brought into the region by an 'intrusive' population', researchers wrote.

'The age of Porto Maior is consistent with previous findings from Iberia that suggest that the Acheulean culture experienced an expansion in the region between 400,000 to 200,000 years ago.'

'While it is clear that more human fossil and stone tool sites need to be reliably dated across the region, a picture appears to be emerging of a turbulent 'Game of Thrones' style scenario of hominin evolution in Eurasia during the Middle Pleistocene period', researchers wrote.

Early Prehistoric Handaxes - History

Acheulean handaxes are referred to in literature as either handaxes, bifaces, core tools or core-bifaces. Biface is the best descriptive term because most handaxes are bifacially flaked into either very thick or "not-so-thick" bifaces. The term biface was first used in 1920 by Vayson de Pradenne. Handaxes are also sometimes referred to as core tools because they are produced by the removal of large flakes from both surfaces of a nodule or cobble. A good percentage of these reduction flakes were used as tools just as later core and blade industries produced tools from flakes struck from cores.



EST. 350,000 to 300,000 YEARS AGO


EST. 350,000 to 300,000 YEARS AGO


EST. 350,000 to 300,000 YEARS AGO

EST. 350,000 to 300,000 YEARS AGO

1961, Braidwood, Robert J., "Prehistoric Men," Flake Tools, p. 45.
1971, Clark, J. Desmond, "The Horizon History Of Africa," African Beginnings, p. 26.
1988, Tattersall, Ian, Delson, Eric & Couvering, John Van, "Encyclopedia of Human Evolution and Prehistory," Acheulean and Handaxe, pp. 3 & 241.
1993, Schick, Kathy D. and Toth, Nicholas, "Making Silent Stone Speak," How Were Handaxes And Cleavers Made?, What Were Acheulean Tools Used For?, pp. 238 & 258-259.
1994, Debenath, Andre and Dibble, Harold L., "Handbook Of Paleolithic Typology, Vol. 1," Bifaces and Cleavers, pp. 130-171.
1996, Fagan, Brian M., "The Oxford Companion To Archaeology," Acheulean Tradition, p. 1.
Personal Communication with Jim G. Shaffer, PhD., Case Western Reserve.

Discovery of giant hand axes suggest a prehistoric 'Game of Thrones' scenario in ancient Europe

Even our earliest human ancestors made and used technology — something we can look back on thanks to the lasting nature of stone tools.

An exceptionally high density of giant hand axes dated to 200,000-300,000 years ago has been uncovered at an archaeological site in Galicia, northwest Spain.

The discovery of these hand axes suggests that alternative types of stone tool technologies were simultaneously being used by different populations in this area — supporting the idea that a prehistoric Game of Thrones scenario existed as Neanderthals emerged in Europe.

Additional evidence for this idea comes from fossil records showing that multiple human lineages lived in southwest Europe around the same time period.


Porto Maior is near the town of As Neves (Pontevedra, Galcia) on a terrace 34m above the current level of the Miño River, which borders northern Portugal and Spain.

The archaeological site at Porto Maior preserves an ancient stone tool culture known as the Acheulean. Characterised by symmetrically knapped stones or large flakes (known as bifaces), the Acheulean is the first sophisticated handaxe technology known in the early human settlement record of Europe.

While Acheulean sites are widespread across the continent, Porto Maior represents Europe’s first extensive accumulation of large cutting tools (LCTs) in the Acheulean tradition. Until now, such high densities of LCTs had only been found in Africa. This new finding reinforces an African origin for the Acheulean in Europe, and confirms an overlap in time-frames of distinctly different stone tool cultures on the continent.

At around the same time that hand axes were being used at Porto Maior, a different stone tool tradition (the Early Middle Palaeolithic) was present in Iberia, for example at Ambrona and Cuesta de la Bajada. In central and eastern Europe — where tools were made exclusively on small flakes — the Acheulean tradition has never been found.

Porto Maior introduces further complexity to this overlapping technological pattern, and suggests that distinct early human populations of different geographical origins coexisted during the Middle Pleistocene (between 773,000 and 125,000 years ago).


In total, 3698 discarded artefacts were recovered from river-lain sediments at the site, with 290 of these making up the studied assemblage reported in our new paper.

The stone tool assemblage is composed of 101 LCTs in original position, and that are on average 18cm long, with a maximum length of 27cm. These handaxe dimensions are exceptionally large by European Acheulean standards (typically only 8-15cm long). The assemblage also contains large cleavers, a type of tool typically found in African sites.

Laboratory analyses indicate that the tools were used to process hard materials such wood and bone, in activities that could have included the breaking up of carcasses.

The Spanish site of Porto Maior clearly resembles extensive accumulations of very large tools previously only seen in Africa and the Near East. These similarities reinforce the idea of an African origin for the Acheulean tradition of southwest Europe.

They also raise new questions regarding the origin and mobility of prehistoric human populations — the ancestors of Neanderthals — that occupied the European continent during the Middle Pleistocene period before the arrival of our own species, Homo sapiens.


The Acheulean toolmaking tradition originated in Africa about 1.7 million years ago, and disappeared on that continent by 500,000 years ago. The specific type of Acheulean tools described at Porto Maior is exclusive to southwest Europe, suggesting that the technology was brought into the region by an “intrusive” population.

The age of Porto Maior is consistent with previous findings from Iberia that suggest that the Acheulean culture experienced an expansion in the region between 400,000 to 200,000 years ago.

This latest discovery supports the increasingly complex narrative developing from ongoing studies of human fossils from Europe namely that human groups of potentially different origins and evolutionary stages coexisted across the continent during a time when the emergence of Neanderthals was taking place.

While it is clear that more human fossil and stone tool sites need to be reliably dated across the region, a picture appears to be emerging of a turbulent Game of Thrones style scenario of hominin evolution in Eurasia during the Middle Pleistocene period.


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