Acheulean hand-ax and iPhone

Acheulean hand-ax and iPhone

On October 4, 2006, I had the opportunity to hold in my hands three archaeological artifacts: Acheulean hand-axes. “Acheulean” is the name is given to the archaeological industry of stone tool manufacture by prehistoric hominids in Africa, much of Asia, and Europe.

As a member of the U.S. Department of Commerce Science and Technology Fellows Program during 2006-2007, I participated in a weekly seminar series which brought in speakers from many areas of science to discuss issues of science, technology, and public policy. Dr. Richard Potts from the Smithsonian Institution was our guest speaker for that day. He described The Human Origins program of the Institution, specifically the various technologies used to carbon date artifacts found at Olorgesailie, Kenya, an archeological site discovered and excavated by Richard and Mary Leakey in the 1940’s. (Dr. Potts had done field work with Mary Leakey.) He presented his research about the relationship between human evolution and climate variability, and indicated how deep ocean cores were drilled off the coast of Africa to collect ancient pollen that served as a proxy record for the temperature of the African savannas.

Acheulean hand-axes date from lower Paleolithic era, dating from about 1.65 M to 100,000 years ago. According to archeologist William Calvin, “the classic ‘Acheulean hand-axe’ is what you see at Olorgesailie by the thousands. It’s like being on a cobble beach with lots of fist-sized round stones – except that most of the stones here were obviously reshaped by hominids who were obsessed with something. Old lake beds in the Sahara, uncovered by sand dunes that shift sideways, can be similarly littered with hand-axes. There’s a dig at Olorgesailie which Louis Leakey called the ‘factory site’ that testifies to the huge quantities left behind over the years. But why?” 1

Archeologists have speculated on a number of uses for the hand-axe: for butchering animals, for digging up edible roots, for scraping animal hides, as a core from which other tools were struck, as an anvil, to throw as a discus-style weapon, or as a “killer Frisbee.” 2 No one purpose has been identified. Hand-axes have often been called “the Swiss-Army knife of the Paleolithic Era.”

Dr. Potts held up the largest hand-axe he’d brought with him, indicating he’d found it several weeks earlier during recent field work at Olorgesailie, and it was not yet catalogued in the Smithsonian’s collection. The tan-colored stone was approximately 800,000 years old. The other two hand-axes he brought had collection numbers on them, as they were already in the catalogue. They middle-sized one was about 80,000 years old and the smallest one perhaps 15,000 years old, both from European archeological sites. He joked that, as with all new technologies, things start out big and get smaller (think of floppy disks or cell phones.)

After the talk, realizing that I’d never again have the opportunity to hold in my hands an artifact nearly 800,000 years old, and I asked Dr. Potts if he would permit us to touch and hold the hand-axes. He agreed. Of the twenty of us in attendance, only a few did so.

The experience of holding in my hands something that represented generations of ancestry, going back to pre-human creatures, was a spiritual experience for me. At that moment, realized I was experiencing something profound and “holy.” I also held the other two hand-axes, and looked at them carefully. But it was the largest and oldest one, the one I grasped first, which triggered a flow of deep emotion. It was quite unexpected, and I was moved to tears.

I thought of the eons of evolution that had transpired since the creation of the world, remembering scripture’s teaching that Christ had been present at the beginning of time (John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…)

I felt connected throughout all time and space to an ancestor, one that was clearly not human, but was somehow still a relative. I thought about the Cosmic Christ and the groaning of all creation for redemption, and realized that such redemption was inclusive of all life in the world, including all of the ancestral trees of human evolution.

Experiencing this connection (and re-experiencing the holiness of that moment writing about it in this essay) with something that was created by a creature, and may have been designed as an everyday tool (or perhaps even for a ritual rite), I realized how the cult of relics may have flourished in the church of the Middle Ages.

I also realized that moments when one finds connection with Meaning (Tillich’s “ground of being”) are not always describable via the written word. Yet I know intuitively that the emotion I experienced then and that I recall now was indeed “holy.” When I started the Fellows Program, I never imagined that a profoundly spiritual moment would happen during the year-long program. I’m so glad I asked to touch those hand-axes. I believe that the spiritual revelation possible through art (and artifacts) involves the five senses. But, this makes perfect sense, because our God is Incarnational — Emmanuel is “God-with-us.”

Photo by Alex Pang via Flickr

  1. William H. Calvin, A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change (University of Chicago Press, 2002), on-line version corresponding to pages 124-131 of the printed book.
  2. ibid, online version corresponding to pages 132-146.
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