It is often said that Homo erectus made the same handaxe for one and a half million years. Yet the axes came in many different sizes, although they kept the same proportions. How did they manage that?
The completely modern human mind began 2 million years ago,
writes independent scholar John Feliks in a paper published in a book titled Pleistocene Paleoart of the World. The paper, Phi in the Acheulian (abstract here), is new to me although it was read a couple of years ago in Lisbon at a conference of the International Union for Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences (UISPP). It proposes a radical solution to the biggest archaeological mystery related to speech origins. Biological data insists that speech must be very old, while archaeological data suggests symbolic thought is much more recent. How are these two lines of evidence to be reconciled?
Feliks offers a solution. His paper cites archaeological evidence that abstract thinking is very old, much older than the rock art and carvings of the so-called symbolic big bang that occurred only a few score thousand years ago.
Two million years ago the human lineage was nearing the rise of Homo ergaster and its twin brother Homo erectus. Archaeologically it was approaching the shift from earlier stone tools typical of Olduvai Gorge to the Acheulian handaxes. (Both H. ergaster and Acheulian tools are generally given an oldest date of 1.8 million years ago.) The handaxes are considered a step beyond the flake tools of earlier Homo species. Homo habilis made tools by knocking flakes off a stone and then using the flakes as a cutting tool. Homo erectus made tools by knocking flakes off a stone and then using what remained of the stone. The handaxe, therefore, was deliberately shaped, and was much larger than the typical 2 inch flake of the earlier style.
The general verdict on the Acheulian handaxe has been, pretty good for an ape man. But I have read plenty of headshaking over those axes too. The main complaint concerns the stability of the axes over time. For a million-and-a-half years the axe stayed very much the same. The repetitive nature of the axe is often taken as proof that erectus was an unimaginative ape, not a human. Feliks rejects that line, writing:
The chief argument Feliks makes is that the similarity of handaxes is overstated and that they do show creativity and imagination. They are not identical. Their chief similarity is in their proportions. They come in all sizes, from the too-big-to-use-as-a-cutting-tool to the too-tiny-to-use, and yet through all these changes and hundreds of thousands of years, they maintain their proportions. Just as striking, the proportion is not some random choice but the famous golden ratio (known mathematically as Phi) which was used, more or less, in the proportions of Parthenon of Athens and pyramids of Giza. In other words, the object can fit in a rectangle that 1 unit by Phi.
Acheulian handaxes come in many sizes, but they are consistently proportioned to fit in a golden rectangle. If you make their base = 1, their height equals 1.618. This claim seems solid, having been established by J.A.J. Gowlett in 1982 (here) In a study of thousands of handaxes found at the Kilombe site in the Kenyan Rift Valley, which is around 700 thousand years old,
The very high correlations between basic dimensions are remarkably similar for different parts of the site.… The high correlations are remarkable enough, but they also allow the study of the early human sense of geometrical proportions.… Most remarkable of all is that the fitted lines, and mean values closely match the proportion of Golden Section favoured in classical art and architecture. [pp. 3-4]
I went online to find an illustration of the Parthenon dimensions and a random illustration of an Acheulian handaxe. Using Photoshop, I then imposed a pink golden rectangle (i.e., a 1 x Phi rectangle) around each item, and voila, the handaxe is more exactly proportioned than the Athenian masterpiece.
The Parthenon inside a "Golden Rectangle."
An Acheulian handaxe inside a golden rectangle.
Impressive as this proportionality is, I hear the voice of Father Guido Sarducci asking Coincidenza? For me to make a consistently proportioned golden rectangle in Photoshop I used a tool that automatically lets me draw rectangles to a fixed ratio. How did erectus do it? Surely those folks also needed a proportioning tool. The classic measuring tool is the hand, and casting about on the web for a picture of a fist I found that the fist does make for a decent golden rectangle.
A fist in a golden rectangle.
An axe maker could use the two sides of a fist to create a well proportioned handaxe. Of course, using a hand to measure proportions requires a capacity to count and to see the abstract relationship between fist size and tool size. So, even at its simplest, consistent proportionality does seem to indicate a capacity for abstract creativity.
But Feliks has more. He suggests that erectus transformed the Phi idea from handaxe proportions to
Phi became, for members of the Acheulian culture, a universal motif that occurred beyond the handaxe. Feliks makes too many arguments and points for this post to cover everything, but the central one is striking: instead of being static, Acheulian culture may have developed many subtleties that scientists tend to overlook because they are outside our range of cultural perception, just as the quarter-tone melodies of Indian and Arabic music are very difficult for Westerners, trained on half-tone music, to discern. To put it bluntly, just as Indian music strikes many Westerners as a very rich and sensuous noise, so the motif of the golden ratio may have led erectus to create patterns that strike our square-loving scientists as simple noise.
To my eye, the most provocative example of this possibility comes from a series of artifacts found at the Blitzingsleben site in Germany, where over 200 thousand erectus creations made of stone, wood, bone, and antler have been excavated. They date from about 320 thousand to 410 thousand years ago. Many of the artifacts are miniaturized handaxes, but many more have nothing to do with the classic Acheulian tool. Even so, Feliks discerns the role of Phi. Many of the bones, wood, etc. have angled lines drawn on them. Although these lines have plainly been etched in and are not random scratches, archaeologists treated them as noise.
Feliks has spent years studying these engravings and has established that many of them reflect a larger geometric intelligence and contain golden rectangles directly on the artifact. Even if we restrain ourselves and do not look at them as some kind of artistic pattern, we must wonder why they were made. A practical thought that crosses my brain is that here we could be looking at the tools that enabled erectus to measure out a golden rectangle with greater precision than by using a fist.
Feliks is a radical pressing the case that our native intelligence has not grown much in almost two million years. For the purposes of this blog, I see no need to go that far, but it does appear that erectus used abstract recognition from early on. If that idea is true, the whole notion of a recent big-bang of symbols collapses and the argument for a recent date for speech origins evaporates.