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What is a Hand Axe?

By Charity Delich
Updated May 17, 2024
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A hand axe is a handheld tool with a sharp edge that was primarily used by prehistoric man during the Stone Age. Usually, these tools were made from flint, quartz, coarse rocks, or other stones that did not break easily. A hand axe tool was probably used for a range of tasks, such as chopping wood and cutting meat. Hand axes were made in a variety of shapes, with the most common being an almond shape. Some axes were rounder or more triangular in form.

By some archeological estimates, the hand axe has been the longest-used cutting device in human history. The use of hand axe tools is estimated to date back as far as the lower Paleolithic (Acheulean) and the middle Paleolithic (Mousterian) eras. Evidence of ancient hand axes has been found primarily in Europe, Africa, and Northern Asia.

Hand axes vary in size – from a couple of inches in length (approximately five cm) to a foot or longer (about 30 cm). Most hand axes, however, are about six or seven inches long (approximately 15 to 18 cm). A hand axe was usually designed with an eccentric center of gravity; in other words, it had an off-center of gravity. It also had a sharp border around all or the majority of its edges.

Originally, a hand axe was probably formed by pounding a rock with a stone hammer. These early examples are often thicker with more sinuous edges. Later on, these axes were likely shaped using hard wood. Later axes are usually thinner and more symmetrical with a straighter edge.

Hand axes are believed to have been used by primitive Stone Age people much like a modern Swiss army knife is used today. Generally, a hand axe blade was used in food preparation, primarily for scraping animal skins and cutting meat, marrow, and tough root vegetables. Chopping or hammering at wood and bone and digging holes are other possible functions. The tool may also have been used as a defense mechanism against wild animals or in ritualistic ceremonies.

Hand axes are distinct from wood-handled axes, which are widely used in modern times. A wood-handled axe is a device that comes in many shapes and sizes but usually consists of an axe head made out of steel that is attached to a wooden handle. It has a range of uses, although it is primarily used to cut down timber or chop up wood. Wood-handled axes are also often considered a ceremonial symbol and were used as weapons in battle.

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Discussion Comments
By anon306804 — On Dec 01, 2012

@JackWhack: I'm pretty sure it was women who invented the hand axe, since it was primarily used for tasks that women would do, such as cutting meat or scraping hides to make clothing.

I don't think that humans would regularly use hand-axes as weapons either, because as the article says, they're kind of like Swiss Army knives which are tools, not weapons, but can be used as one in a life-or-death situation.

By kylee07drg — On Oct 09, 2012

I heard in class that the Homo erectus hand axe was used to attract a mate. This makes sense, because a man had to be strong in order to be able to make his own axe. If a woman saw a man carrying an impressive axe around, then she knew this signified his strength and ability to take care of his family.

By cloudel — On Oct 09, 2012

@JackWhack – I would imagine that women used the axe in the kitchen. They probably had to cut up some meat, even if they didn't have to do the initial butchering.

An axe might have come in handy for women as a tool of self-defense while the men were away, too. I imagine that if she had to, a woman could try throwing the axe at whoever threatened her life. It probably could have done some major damage, too.

By JackWhack — On Oct 08, 2012
I read that an Acheulean hand axe was found next to some elephant bones. This made archaeologists think that the axe was used for killing and cutting up an animal.

The rocks were fashioned so well and into such a sharp point that they could be used to bust up huge bones. I would imagine that the intimidation factor of someone walking with a hand axe long ago would be the equivalent of someone walking the street with a hand gun today.

Does anyone know if women ever used hand axes? I doubt that they were out killing elephants, but did they ever have a reason to use the axe around the house?

By healthy4life — On Oct 08, 2012

I have seen photos in history books of hand axes made of stone, and to me, they resemble arrowheads. I suppose that a pounded stone looks the same despite its purpose.

Back then, no one hand axe would be the same as another. I don't think it was even possible to make two identical hand axes.

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