Not currently on display

Olduvai handaxe

Lower Palaeolithic, about 1.2 million years old, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania

The first great invention, this tool is called a handaxe. Handaxes were first made in Olduvai Gorge about 1.5 million years ago.

They 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 artefact 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.

This example is made from fine-grained, green volcanic lava called phonolite. Using a stone hammer, the maker has carefully struck flakes alternately from both faces around the entire edge, making it thinner at the tip and thicker and heavier at the bottom with a regular edge all round. This requires a skilful, well co-ordinated use of force.

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?

Insert Languages

Related products


A History of the World in 100 objects

By Neil MacGregor

Accompanies the BBC Radio 4 series

Object details

Length: 23.8 cm
Width: 10 cm
Depth: 5 cm


P&E PRB 1934.12-14.49


    L.S.B. Leakey, Olduvai Gorge. A report on the evolution of the handaxe culture in beds I-IV, (Cambridge, University Press, 1951)

    K.D. Schick and N. Schick, Making silent stones speak. Human evolution and the dawn of technology, (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993)

    See this object in our Collection database online

    Further reading

    C. Gamble, Timewalkers: the Prehistory of Global Colonization (Stroud, 1993)

    C. Gamble, The Palaeolithic Societies of Europe (Cambridge, 1999)

    R. Klein, The Human Career (Chicago, 2009)

    R. Klein, ‘Hominin Dispersals in the Old World’, in C. Scarre (ed.) The Human Past: World Prehistory and the Development of Human Societies (London, 2009), pp. 84–123.

    C. Stringer, Homo Britannicus: The Incredible Story of Human Life in Britain (London, 2006)

    C. Stringer, C. Andrews and P. Andrews, The Complete World of Human Evolution. (London, 2005)