ORIGINAL ARTICLE BY JENNIFER WALSH AT LIVESCIENCE.COM
The axes may have been traded between human groups and would have served as a social cue to others, Mimi Lam, a researcher from the University of British Columbia, suggested in her talk at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting here on Feb. 18.
“The Acheulean hand ax was standardized and shaped, became exchanged in social networks and took on a symbolic meaning,” Lam said. “My suggestion was that hand axes were the first commodity: A marketable good or service that has value and is used as an item for exchange.”
“Humans are unique in their use of tools,” Lam said. “We make stone tools and the stones are durable and become part of our external environment.” These tools, she added, could have been passed down in family groups or traded with other ancient hominids.
As humans became more intelligent, their tools become more symmetrical. “They became standardized as a result of social norms and also utility. Eventually, over time, hand axes were made special to set them apart,” Lam said. “There was a trend to distinguish these common tools that had a standard shape.”
Examples of hand axes from about 250,000 to 700,000 years ago contain some of these special properties, such as being made of pink rock or rock embedded with fossils. Ancient humans also made large axes that stood out from the crowd.
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Dozens of tools thought to have belonged to Neanderthals have been dug up at an archaeological site called Beedings in West Sussex.
The tools could have been used to hunt horses, mammoth and woolly rhinoceros.
“The impression they give is of a population in complete command of both landscape and natural raw materials with a flourishing technology – not a people on the edge of extinction.”