From side to side: Symmetry in handaxes in the British Lower and Middle Palaeolithic

John McNabb, James Cole, Christian Hoggard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Acheulean is defined by its iconic tool type, the handaxe, and a suite of other large cutting tools (LCTs). These tools retain information on technical and procedural practices concerned with the manufacture of these butchery tools and carcass processing knives. The Acheulean straddles the period in which more ancient hominin species (H. erectus and H. heidelbergensis) give way to archaic H. sapiens (sensu lato) amongst whom the ancestor of modern humans may be found. The roots of modern behaviour may be present in these handaxe making hominin species, and the handaxes themselves, through proxy data such as bilateral symmetry, may chart hominin cognitive evolution as researchers such as T. Wynn and F. Coolidge (2016), amongst others, have argued. But the search for the earliest consistent application of symmetry, and its persistence thereafter has been hampered by the lack of large datasets, spanning the temporal extent of the Acheulean, and analysed through a single consistent methodology. Our paper has two aims. The first, and in the absence of a large comparative data set of earlier Acheulean handaxes, is to assess the degree to which symmetry is consistently applied to the making of handaxes in the later Acheulean (=<0.5 mya), a time when bilateral planform symmetry should already be an integral component in handaxe making. The dataset we select is the British Acheulean from MIS 13 – MIS 3/4. To the best of our knowledge this is the first time handaxe symmetry has been assessed on a large body of British Acheulean handaxes. Our second aim is to present a relatively simple and low tech methodology for the analysis of handaxes and their symmetry that is widely available and does not require expensive equipment or specialist software/technical knowledge. It works from orthogonal handaxe photographs which many researchers will already have. From such data it may be possible to begin to construct the larger datasets necessary to answer symmetry related questions regarding cognitive evolution. This offers us the opportunity to raise a number of key methodological questions which we believe ought to be debated by researchers before the generation of appropriate datasets begins.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)293-310
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science: Reports
Publication statusPublished - 21 Nov 2017

Bibliographical note

© 2017. This manuscript version is made available under the CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 license


  • Mya, Millions of years ago
  • my, Million years
  • kya, Hundred thousand years ago
  • ky, hundred thousand years
  • MIS, Marine isotope stage


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