The Handaxe, The Thunderstone, The Ouroboros

One of the earlier definitions of “humanity” is “a creature that uses tools.” This is outdated, but it’s still the one I first learned, and there’s still something precise enough about it that we kind of recognize what it means. It implies more than just tools. A parent leans down and teaches their offspring the proper use of some piece of technology, a kind of initiation into the rights of being a person, a member of a tribe, a capable individual with talents beyond tooth and fist.

I suspect that we’re seeing the “tool” less than we’re considering all that it means for a political animal to teach and learn the craft and use of a tool. This is particularly true for us now, considering that other animals use tools, that we have increasingly complex definitions of human beings, that we have increasingly convoluted timelines for the emergence of such a creature. This is how other species learn, of course, and the difference is more subtle than it used to be.

Still. Consider the handaxe.

A simple technology made by pounding the edges of a core sharp, first used by Homo erectus (or H. ergaster, which may be the same) then passed on to later hominin. Between 1.8 and 1.7 million years ago it began to spread across the world. The most common date given is 1.76 mya for the first axe. This is dated Before Present, with Present defined as 1950, but those 50 years vanish in the lengths of time.

The handaxe is somewhat awkwardly named. While it was used for many things (several books refer to it as “the Swiss Army Knife of the Paleolithic”), none of the primary uses are much like axes now. The full repertoire is contentious (shovel? weapon?), but there’s a general consensus that it was most important for butchery. It could be knapped at the site of the kill (or scavenge), or retouched beforehand, and was light enough to be carried by hunting parties. The Neanderthals Rediscovered explains:

The handaxe is a large, multi-purpose cutting device, knapped into shape on both sides, and which in most cases fits comfortably in the hand. It was useful for virtually all aspects of butchering large game (whether hunted or scavenged), including separating flesh from bone, skinning to make hides and possibly also killing the animals. It may have had other uses as well.

A caveat: The best book I’ve read on paleolithic technology drops the name entirely, preferring LCT for “Long Core Tools,” emphasizing the construction (alternately: “Long Cutting Tool,” emphasizing the consensus use). A handaxe was originally made through bipolar percussion, where you place a core stone between a stone anvil and a hammerstone and smash down. This video gives a good sense of it. The axes (or LCTs) were then reduced on either face (depending on era  – some did not include this step) until the tool was sharp (Shea calls this “non-hierarchical reduction,” because both sides received the same amount of attention).

I’m going to call it a handaxe, mostly because that’s what everyone else does, while giving you a warning: “handaxe” refers to a wide variety of mostly-the-sameish tools, with an emphasis on the “mostly”. It’s hard for us to judge now how similar they were, which might be from unfamiliarity or a focus on the wrong morphological features.

That being said. Consider the handaxe. This is what a handaxe looks like:

The handaxe came into being 1.76 million years ago. It lasted an absurd length of time. This still depends a lot on how you’re defining it, and The Neanderthals Rediscovered gives the most extreme version:

Judging by its longevity, the handaxe is the greatest-ever human invention. From its first appearance, humans continued to use this tool until around 40,000 years ago. This means that the tradition of making handaxes lasted far longer than its original inventors and was practised by a number of erectus’s successor species, probably including our own.

Let’s say a generation is about 25 years. This is inaccurate – earlier hominin matured much more rapidly than Sapiens – but it should give some sense of things. 1.72 million/25 years = 68,800 generations passed down the handaxe (68,799, accounting for that last one). 68,800 families and groups and tribes taught their children to strike flint in the right way and in the same style. For point of reference: 80 generations divide you and Augustus Caesar.

It’s slightly more complex than this. Tool cultures changed in between that (and people evolved), and the 1.72 million year lifespan of the biface handaxe goes from the Upper Paleolithic all the way through to the Lower Paleolithic (the three main periods characterized by their tools), changed style and complexity of design, was eventually given a handle, etc. The classic form of the stone handaxe is from the Acheulean period (named for a dig site in Saint-Acheul, France), which ended some 200-150 thousand years ago. I assume that the writers above mean to include later stone tools that are mostly-basically the same. Let’s assume that they’re wrong and there’s a sharp break. Correcting for the Acheulian period, the handaxe was only used by 60,800 generations. Another point of reference: 185 generations ago, the Great Pyramid of Giza did not exist.

This would also be to ignore the more interesting view: we used them right up until the present. True, there were stone-handaxe-like tools in Australia and North America (Shea), but that’s not quite what I mean.

I mean thunderstones.

Modern technology is useful for dating tools, but it’s less necessary for finding them (most of the time). All you need is a shovel and some luck, or a hoe and some luck, or just some luck. A farmer unearths them while tilling, someone cuts their foot while fording a river, etc. The stone handaxe was so common for so long that there are, as you might expect, an absurd amount of them just laying around waiting to be reunited with us.

Given that fact, I always wondered what ancient people thought of them. “Ancient” is relative given the massive timespan I just talked about, so really I mean classical, vaguely-vanishingly-older than us. What did some Roman farmer who uncovered [tool] think it was? Would they recognize its shape and form, would they assume it was from humans?

I only ran into the answer by accident, and there’s surprisingly little written on such an important subject. The answer to the first is yes, and the answer to the second is no.

The thunderstone is an old folkloric tradition. It’s found all across the world in one form or another. When ancient tools were recovered, peoples determined, quite reasonably, that they had to come from somewhere, and since they weren’t from people that normally meant a divine source. Not all of the stones were paleolithic flints (meteoric rocks were common, same with other fossils), but the handaxe (and other tools) were common enough to form the majority of thunderstones.

This is a novel use of the handaxe. It’s not what they were designed for, but it’s hard to argue that it isn’t a use. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols (under “Stone”) has a ridiculously long section on thunderstones (which speaks to their ubiquity), so I’m going to identify a few things here rather than typing out all four pages:

Thunderstones […] are symbols of thunder itself, and therefore of heavenly activity, and not of its presence or of its effects. (Into this category fall Parashurama’s stone axe and Thor’s stone hammer.) […] The frequency with which stones fell from Heaven was often regarded – and this is especially true of Ancient China – as being due to the fact that the sky was itself the roof of a cave. […]

Penguin then quotes Mircea Eliade:

People thought the so-called ‘thunder’ stones – which are for the most part nothing more than prehistoric flints – were the very arrowpoints of the lightning, and they were venerated and piously preserved as such. Everything that fell from above partook of the holiness of the sky; that is why meteorites, absolutely saturated with it, were venerated.

Many of the beliefs, perhaps unsurprisingly, use the stones as a ward against lightning. This paper, which dives into the reappopriation of paleolithic and neolithic tools by the classical Romans and Greeks, gives perhaps the best sense of it:

It seems fairly certain that the Greeks and Romans, at least from the Hellenistic period onwards, believed that pre-historic axe heads could be used to protect buildings. Our clearest evidence comes from a rather late source, Timotheos of Gaza, a fifth-century CE author who tells us that “you will have an amulet (periapton) against a thunderblast (keraunon), if you inscribe a thunderstone (lithon keraunion) with the letters αφια αφρυξ and keep it in your house.” This idea seems, however, to have circulated among the Greeks much earlier: Sotacus, the Hellenistic author of a lost treatise on stones maintained (according to Pliny’s abridged account) that cerauniae “are similar to axes (similes … securibus)” and can be divided into two types by color and shape: the black and round ones called baetyli, which can be used aggressively to attack cities and navies; and the red and oblong ones called cerauniae

The general idea, then, seems to be that like bans like: a thunderstone fallen from the sky will in future protect against thunderstorms and lightning strikes. All of the other late-antique and medieval sources insist on the protective qualities of these stones…

Archaeologists have suggested that the examples found in temples may have been placed there as votives or dedications and this is certainly plausible, but we should remember that temples themselves, as larger buildings, could also be the frequent target of lightning strikes and that some of these stones may have been used for protection. Medieval sources and northern European ethnography suggest that these axe-heads were often positioned at doorways, in walls and under rooftop…

The abstract complains (rightly so) that the import of thunderstones has been largely forgotten. Somewhat comically, their omission has led to serious problems with dating artifacts: people have been accidentally dating (re-appropriated) paleolithic artifacts as classical artifacts. Which, of course, they are, just not in quite the way that people think.

It’s kind of surprising to me that we’ve forgotten this tradition. The handaxe is useful now for reference, dating, and determining the movement of early humans, but its import as thunderstone is unappreciated. They were instrumental in developing modern anthropology, by which I mean they were the subject of the founding discourse:

Even as late as the seventeenth century a French ambassador brought a stone hatchet, which still exists in the museum at Nancy, as a present to the Prince-Bishop of Verdun, and claimed for it health-giving virtues. […]

In 1723 Jussieu addressed the French Academy on The Origin and Uses of Thunder-stones. He showed that recent travellers from various parts of the world had brought a number of weapons and other implements of stone to France, and that they were essentially similar to what in Europe had been known as “thunder-stones.” A year later this fact was clinched into the scientific mind of France by the Jesuit Lafitau, who published a work showing the similarity between the customs of aborigines then existing in other lands and those of the early inhabitants of Europe. So began, in these works of Jussieu and Lafitau, the science of Comparative Ethnography.

History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom

One more.

There is, from time to time, a strong enough tug towards symbolism in the world that one can almost believe in a God. It would have to be a trickster, a kindly one, who reveals His presence in little hints – the echo of a metaphor, the ripple of some little truth. The handaxe was our most successful tool, carried among us for millions of years. In turn, later people took it up and used it as a divine artifact. Finally, modern men reclaimed the axe once more, for the purposes of scientific exploration and self-discovery.

When the Greeks and Romans adopted the thunderstones of their fore-fore-fore-fathers, they tended to carve protective images and phrases into them. One of the best preserved has this: “Near the cutting edge of the axe-head we find engraved the Egyptian “pantheistic deity” and magical names encircled by an ouroborus-serpent, the Egyptian design of a serpent eating its own tail that was a common motif on amulets of the Roman period.”

We return, always and forever, to the source.


The Neanderthals RediscoveredDimitra Papagianni, Michael A. Morse

Stone Tools in Human Evolution – John J. Shea

The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols – Jean Chevalier, Alain Gheerbrant

Patterns in Comparative Religion – Mircea Eliade

Inscribed Greek Thunderstones as House- and Body-Amulets in Roman Imperial Times – Christopher A. Faraone

History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom – Andrew Dickson White


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