The Origin of the Acheulian


Current evidence shows that the origin of the Acheulian dates back to at least 1.7 Ma in Africa. Although only three sites exist before 1.5 Ma, this complex technology seems to coexist for substantial time with small core and flake tools, typical of the Oldowan. While animal butchery has been widely documented at Oldowan sites, this activity remains marginal at Acheulian sites. There is a wide diversity of predominant tool types at Acheulian sites. This, together with spatial and palaeoecological patterning, is suggestive of a diversity of activities carried out at these sites according to ecological location. Acheulian sites are bigger than Oldowan sites, but their functions remain unknown. The complexity of the Acheulian has been exhaustively studied from a technological perspective, but not so much from a behavioural point of view. Understanding what activities were carried out at Acheulian sites is crucial to understand this crucial phase of the evolution of Homo erectus/ergaster.

Key Concepts

  • The Acheulian is the oldest human complex technology.
  • It consists of large intentionally shaped tools.
  • The Acheulian emerges 1.7 Ma.
  • The oldest symmetrical bifacial handaxes show that complex neurophysiology existed at the beginning of the Acheulian.
  • The diversity of tools and reduction sequences at Acheulian sites show that hominins had complex behaviours and adaptations in the early Pleistocene.

Keywords: Acheulian; handaxe; large cutting tools; H. erectus; Africa

Figure 1. FLK West main trench at lower Bed II. One of the three oldest Acheulian sites in the world.
Figure 2. Example of LCTs found together at FLK West. This shows that rudimentary LCTs (a) coexisted with elaborate bifacial handaxes (b) from the beginning of the Acehulian.
Figure 3. Excavation of the lower level of FLK West, showing the handaxe displayed in Figure in situ. Reprinted from Diez‐Martín et al. The Origin of The Acheulean: The 1.7 Million‐Year‐Old Site of FLK West, Olduvai Gorge (Tanzania). Scientific Reports 5, 17839.


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Further Reading

Diez‐Martín F, Fraile C, Uribelarrea D, et al. (2017) SHK extension: a new archaeological window in the SHK fluvial landscape of Middle Bed II (Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania). Boreas 46: 831–859.

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Mussi M, Altamura F, Macchiarelli R, Melis RT and Spinapolice EE (2014) Garba III (Melka Kunture, Ethiopia): a MSA site with archaic Homo sapiens remains revisited. Quaternary International 343: 28–39.

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Sánchez‐Yustos P, Diez‐Martín F, Domínguez‐Rodrigo M, et al. (2017) Diversity and significance of core preparation in the Developed Oldowan technology: reconstructing the flaking processes at SHK and BK (Middle‐Upper Bed II, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania). Boreas 46: 894–917.

Yravedra J, Diez‐Martin F, Egeland CP, et al. (2017a) FLK West (Lower Bed II, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania): a new early Acheulean site with evidence for human exploitation of fauna. Boreas 46: 816–830.

Yravedra J, Maté‐González MA, Palomeque‐González J, et al. (2017b) A new approach to raw material use in the exploitation of animal carcasses at BK (Upper Bed II, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania): a Micro‐Photogrammetric and Geometric Morphometric analysis of cut marks. Boreas 46: 860–873.

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Domínguez‐Rodrigo, Manuel(May 2018) The Origin of the Acheulian. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0027078]