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, 12 (5), e0177063

High Handaxe Symmetry at the Beginning of the European Acheulian: The Data From La Noira (France) in Context


High Handaxe Symmetry at the Beginning of the European Acheulian: The Data From La Noira (France) in Context

Radu Iovita et al. PLoS One.


In the last few decades, new discoveries have pushed the beginning of the biface-rich European Acheulian from 500 thousand years (ka) ago back to at least 700 ka, and possibly to 1 million years (Ma) ago. It remains, however, unclear to date if handaxes arrived in Europe as a fully developed technology or if they evolved locally from core-and-flake industries. This issue is also linked with another long-standing debate on the existence and behavioral, cognitive, and social meaning of a possibly chronological trend for increased handaxe symmetry throughout the Lower Paleolithic. The newly discovered sites can provide a link between the much older Acheulian in Africa and the Levant and the well-known assemblages from the later European Acheulian, enabling a rigorous testing of these hypotheses using modern morphometric methods. Here we use the Continuous Symmetry Measure (CSM) method to quantify handaxe symmetry at la Noira, a newly excavated site in central France, which features two archaeological levels, respectively ca. 700 ka and 500 ka old. In order to provide a context for the new data, we use a large aggregate from the well-known 500 ka old site of Boxgrove, England. We show that handaxes from the oldest layer at la Noira, although on average less symmetric than both those from the younger layers at the same site and than those from Boxgrove, are nevertheless much more symmetric than other early Acheulian specimens evaluated using the CSM method. We also correlate trends in symmetry to degree of reduction, demonstrating that raw material availability and discard patterns may affect observed symmetry values. We conclude that it is likely that, by the time the Acheulian arrived in Europe, its makers were, from a cognitive and motor-control point of view, already capable of producing the symmetric variant of this technology.

Conflict of interest statement

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Fig 1
Fig 1. Geographic context.
Map of Europe showing the location of the two sites discussed here along with that of other important sites in the relevant period.
Fig 2
Fig 2. Handaxes from la Noira, lower level.
Examples of the types of millstone handaxes at the lower level at la Noira: crudely-made bifacial tools (1, 2, 9, 10) bifacial tools (4), bifaces (3, 6, 7) and bifacial cleavers (8).
Fig 3
Fig 3. Handaxes from la Noira, upper level.
Examples of the types of millstone and flint handaxes at the upper level at la Noira: bifaces with the bifacial upper part (1, 4), bifaces (2, 3, 7, 8) and bifacial cleavers (5, 6).
Fig 4
Fig 4. Examples of two handaxes (frontal views).
Left: original photos, middle: extracted contours (numbers represent the S(Cs) values; right: reconstructed nearest symmetric shapes.
Fig 5
Fig 5. Latitudinal and longitudinal permutations of a contour.
Illustration of a handaxe contour, showing how the latitudinal and longitudinal permutations are defined based on the orientation of the optimal symmetry line.
Fig 6
Fig 6. Summary of symmetry for each assemblage and view (cross-section).
Note that Boxgrove handaxes are more symmetric in all views, although the difference is not large.
Fig 7
Fig 7. Variation in symmetry by raw material type.
Fig 8
Fig 8. Variation in symmetry by biface blank type (i.e., the flake, nodule, or slab used to fashion the handaxe).
Fig 9
Fig 9. Permutation distribution for all assemblages and views.
The graph shows a clear separation between latitudinal and longitudinal handaxes according to the placement of the axis of best symmetry.
Fig 10
Fig 10. Percentage of latitudinal handaxes (where the line of best symmetry is perpendicular to the longest axis) at la Noira.
Points represent averages per assemblage. Note the presence of many more latitudinal handaxes in the top view for La Noira lower level (almost 50%).
Fig 11
Fig 11. Visual representation of shape variation in the handaxes from la Noira and Boxgrove (frontal view).
Fig 12
Fig 12. Visual representation of shape variation in the handaxes from la Noira and Boxgrove (top view).
Fig 13
Fig 13. Visual representation of shape variation in the handaxes from la Noira and Boxgrove (lateral view).

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    1. Frere J. Account of flint weapons discovered at Hoxne in Suffolk. Archaeol Soc Antiqu Lond. 1800;13: 204–205.
    1. Kohn M, Mithen S. Handaxes: products of sexual selection? Antiquity. 1999;73: 518–551.
    1. Wayman JL. Foot cutters: a new hypothesis for the function of Acheulian bifaces and related lithics. Lithic Technol. 2010;35: 171–194.
    1. Lycett SJ. “Most beautiful and most wonderful”: Those endless stone tool forms. J Evol Psychol. 2011;9: 143–171.
    1. Pope M, Russel K, Watson K. Biface form and structured behaviour in the Acheulean. Lithics. 2006;27: 44–57.

Grant support

This work received support from the Agence Nationale de la Recherche, grant n° 2010 BLAN 2006 01 - MHM; the Association Archéa (Région Centre, France) - MHM; the Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication - MHM; the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle - MHM; the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Leibniz-Forschungsinstitut für Archäologie - RI; The Open University of Israel Research Fund grant no's 501291 and 503232 - ITA. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.