'Trust' provides answer to handaxe enigma

November 21, 2012, University of York
Handaxe from Boxgrove carefully made to keep a symmetrical outline despite a flaw in the raw material, around 0.5 million years old. Credit: Matthew Pope

Trust rather than lust is at the heart of the attention to detail and finely made form of handaxes from around 1.7 million years ago, according to a University of York researcher.

Dr Penny Spikins, from the Department of Archaeology, suggests a desire to prove their , rather than a need to demonstrate their as a mate, was the driving force behind the fine crafting of handaxes by /ergaster in the Lower .

Dr Spikins said: "We sometimes imagine that were self-centred, and if emotional at all, that they would have been driven by their immediate desires. However, research suggests that we have reason to have more faith in , and that trust played a key role in early . Displaying trust not lust was behind the attention to detail and finely made form of handaxes."

The 'trustworthy handaxe theory' is explained in an article in World Archaeology and contrasts sharply with previous claims that finely crafted handaxes were about competition between males and .

Dr Spikins said: "Since their first recovery, the appealing form of handaxes and the difficulty of their manufacture have inspired much interest into the possible 'meaning' of these . Much of the debate has centred on claims that the attention to symmetrical form and the demonstration of skill would have played a key role in sexual selection, as they would have helped attract a mate eager to take advantage of a clear signal of advantageous genes.

Handaxe nicknamed 'Excalibur' from Atapuerca, northern Spain, which appears to be the earliest deliberate grave offering, 0.5 million years old. Credit: Matthew Pope

"However, I propose that attention to form is much more about decisions about who to trust; that it can be seen as a of goodwill or trustworthiness to others. The attention to detail is about showing an ability to care about the final form, and by extension, people too.

"In addition, overcoming the significant frustrations of imposing form on stone displays considerable emotional self-control and patience, traits needed for strong and enduring relationships."

Handaxes, or bifaces, appeared around 1.7 million years ago in Africa and spread throughout the occupied world of Africa, Europe and western Asia, functioning primarily as butchery implements. Handaxe form remained remarkably similar for more than a million years.

Dr Spikins said: "Trust is essential to all our relationships today, and we see the very beginnings of the building blocks of trust in other apes. The implication that it was an instinct towards trust which shaped the face of stone tool manufacture is particularly significant to our understanding of Lower Palaeolithic societies. It sets a challenge for research into how our emotions, rather than our complex thinking skills, made us human.

"As small vulnerable primates in risky environments where they faced dangerous predators our ancestors needed to be able to depend on each other to survive - displaying our emotional capacities was part of forming trusting relationships with the kind of 'give and take' that they needed."

Dr Spikins points to other higher primates, particularly chimpanzees, as well as modern human hunter-gatherers to back up her theory of trustworthiness.

"Long-term altruistic alliances in both chimpanzees and humans are forged by many small unconscious gestures of goodwill, or acts of altruism, such as soothing those in distress or sharing food," said Dr Spikins.

"As signals of trustworthiness, these contribute to one's reputation, and in hunter-gatherers reputation can be the key to survival, with the most trustworthy hunters being looked after most willingly by the others when they are ill or elderly.

"The form of a handaxe is worth considerable effort, as it may demonstrate trustworthiness not only in its production, but also each time it is seen or re-used, when it might remind others of the emotional reliability of its maker."

Explore further: Neanderthals had feelings too, say researchers

More information: "Goodwill hunting? Debates over the 'meaning' of Lower Palaeolithic handaxe form revisited" is published in World Archaeology. dx.doi.org/10.1080/00438243.2012.725889

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5 / 5 (12) Nov 21, 2012
I normally think archeologists are intelligent people, but this is the stupidest argument I've ever seen. A tool that is swung through the air to intentionally strike another object using a relatively small striking surface has to be symmetrical to work well. Don't believe me? Make a corkscrew handle for a hammer and try pounding some nails. Shave a few ounces of metal off just one of the faces of an axe and then try to chop some wood. If not symmetrical, as the striking surface hits the target material, the offset center of mass combined with the momentum of the tool will cause it to rotate out of alignment. This can cause no end of problems. It can cause the target material to move laterally (bent nail, chunk of wood flying off to the side), forcing the tool-user to stop and realign it. It can cause the tool to bounce of the target and impact the ground or other unintentional targets like the tool-users foot (you did want to keep your toes, so forget about my axe suggestion).
5 / 5 (5) Nov 21, 2012
The off-target strike might break the tool. Even if the strike surface does engage the target it could still break. Or it might not follow the intended path (accidentally gouging a hide rather than delicately shaving meat and fat off it). Or it might chip material off and send it flying in an unintended direction, like into the tool-user's eye. If it does engage properly it still might not deliver as much force, causing the tool-user to use more force, more energy, and more time to get the job done.

So instead of the theories that seem to have arisen directly from the theorists' gonads (the men say it's all about sex, the woman says it's about trust), I proffer a new one. It's about the tool user's fitness directly - symmetrical tools allow the user to more efficiently and more safely prepare food, clothing, and shelter.
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 22, 2012
I suspect that someone has an OCD husband or boyfriend who repetitively disassembles, cleans, and reasembles his firearms on the coffee table while she watches The Lion King for the umpteenth time. He also apparently shows no interest in sex.
5 / 5 (1) Nov 22, 2012
> I normally think archeologists are intelligent people, but

Man, you rock.
2 / 5 (4) Nov 22, 2012
Theories:Trust, fitness, sex. These cannot be exclusive. The modern axe is fit for modern use and often is artistic to achieve market needs.

The rock hand axe is shaped like a vagina which is associated with life, gift, trade, and trust. Women produced, used, traded, gifted, and buried them in grief, what better shape than a vagina could have evolved to remind a man where he belongs and that is also fit for the use?
5 / 5 (1) Nov 22, 2012
seems like a pretty week argument to me.

I suggest they payed attention to detail and symmetry because they wanted to make the tools as close to idealized/perfect as possible. There's significant cognitive benefits and motivations to simplify the form and in the process of chipping it into shape they internalized the practice and benefits of identifying and working towards an idealized functional form.
3 / 5 (2) Nov 24, 2012
1 / 5 (1) Nov 26, 2012
Symmetry makes a handaxe easy to use regardless which side faces the palm of the hand. Pick it up and use it without a need to flip to the other side.
not rated yet Dec 10, 2012
its simple really, humans have a natural affinity for symmetric objects. We find art and faces more pleasing when balanced. Why that is could be the necessity of making symmetric tools because they simply work better when balanced. cut a chunk out of a hammer and try to hit a nail.

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