Giant Hand Axes Discovered in England Point to Prehistoric Humans’ ‘Strength and Skill’

July 16, 2023

A trove of artifacts found in a valley in Kent includes the third largest hand ax found in the country to date

Archaeologist Letty Ingrey measuring an ax
Archaeologist Letty Ingrey measures one of the hand axes. University College London Archaeology South-East

Researchers in Kent, England, have unearthed 800 prehistoric artifacts, including two “giant hand axes” believed to be more than 300,000 years old.

A team from University College London (UCL) Archaeology South-East conducted the excavations ahead of construction of a new maritime academy in Frindsbury, a small parish about 30 miles southeast of London. Per a statement, the archaeologists found the artifacts preserved in sediment deposits from the Ice Age on a hillside at the edge of the Medway Valley. Their analysis of the objects is newly published in the journal Internet Archaeology.

As Pandora Dewan reports for Newsweek, researchers think the stone tools date to an interglacial period between 300,000 and 330,000 years ago.

“At this time, we had early Neanderthal people inhabiting Britain, but there might have been other archaic human species around also,” UCL archaeologist Letty Ingrey tells Newsweek. “Unfortunately, we don’t have any fossil evidence from the site so can’t be sure exactly who was making these tools.”

The dig’s most significant discoveries were two enormous hand axes: pieces of stone that early humans chipped into sharp edges and used to butcher animals or cut meat. As Ingrey says in the  statement, such tools are classified as “giants” when they’re more than 22 centimeters long (around 8.7 inches). One of the newly excavated axes measures 29.6 centimeters long, or 11.7 inches, and is the third largest hand ax found in Britain to date, notes a description of the tool on the 3D modeling platform Sketchfab.

“These hand axes are so big it’s difficult to imagine how they could have been easily held and used,” Ingrey says. “Perhaps they fulfilled a less practical or more symbolic function than other tools, a clear demonstration of strength and skill. While right now, we aren’t sure why such large tools were being made, or which species of early humans were making them, this site offers a chance to answer these exciting questions.”

Neanderthals roamed Europe and parts of Asia for about 360,000 years, until roughly 38,000 B.C.E., according to the London Natural History Museum. Though researchers aren’t sure exactly which human species made the axes found in Kent, thousands of Neanderthal hand axes have previously been found in the region.

For decades, scientists and laypeople alike portrayed Neanderthals as “lamebrained brutes who huddled in cold caves while gnawing at slabs of slain mammoth,” wrote Franz Lidz for Smithsonian magazine in 2019. But more recent research contradicts this image, suggesting these human ancestors crafted art, conducted symbolic rituals and developed complex tools.

The hand ax at four different angles
The largest hand ax found during the dig is almost a foot long. University College London Archaeology South-East

Around 300,000 years ago, Neanderthals came up with a method now known as the Levallois technique, shaping flintstone into portable cores they could later transform into sharp tools. This way, Neanderthals could travel away from sources of raw material while retaining their tool-making capabilities. As archaeologist Stephen E. Nash wrote for Sapiens in 2017, chipping, or “knapping,” a flintstone core involved removing flake after flake from its surface. The toolmaker finished by striking off a large “Levallois flake,” Nash noted, “a very nice, thin and predictably shaped tool” that demonstrated Neanderthals’ capacity for abstract thought.

Neanderthals shared the Medway Valley with red deer, horses and now-extinct straight-tusked elephants, all of which they may have hunted and butchered with hand axes, Ingrey tells Newsweek. Researchers have previously discovered prehistoric tools in the valley, including another giant hand ax, but never as part of a large-scale excavation.

“The excavations at the Maritime Academy have given us an incredibly valuable opportunity to study how an entire Ice Age landscape developed over a quarter of a million years ago,” says UCL archaeologist Matthew Pope in the statement.

Forthcoming analysis will help researchers understand why the site was important to prehistoric people, Pope continues, “and how the stone artifacts, including the ‘giant hand axes,’ helped them adapt to the challenges of Ice Age environments.”