Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory

, Volume 24, Issue 2, pp 514–541 | Cite as

Influence of Handaxe Size and Shape on Cutting Efficiency: A Large-Scale Experiment and Morphometric Analysis

  • Alastair J. M. Key
  • Stephen J. Lycett


Handaxes represent one of the most temporally enduring and geographically widespread of Palaeolithic artifacts and thus comprised a key technological strategy of many hominin populations. Archaeologically observable variation in the size (i.e., mass) and shape properties of handaxes has been frequently noted. It is logical to ask whether some of this variability may have had functional implications. Here, we report the results of a large-scale (n = 500 handaxes) experiment designed to examine the influence of variation in handaxe size and shape on cutting efficiency rates during a laboratory task. We used a comprehensive dataset of morphometric (size-adjusted) shape variables and statistical methods (including multivariate methods) to address this issue. Our first set of analyses focused on handaxe mass/size variability. This analysis demonstrated that, at a broad-scale level of variation, handaxe mass may have been free to vary independently of functional (cutting) efficiency. Our analysis also, however, identified that there will be a task-specific threshold in terms of functional effectiveness at the lower end of handaxe mass variation. This implies that hominins may have targeted design forms to meet minimal (task-specific) thresholds and may also have managed handaxe reduction and discard in respect to such factors. Our second set of analyses focused on handaxe shape variability. This analysis also indicated that considerable variation in handaxe shape may occur independently of any strong effect on cutting efficiency. We discuss how these results have several implications for considerations of handaxe variation in the archaeological record. At a general level, our results demonstrate that variability within and between handaxe assemblages in terms of their size and shape properties will not necessarily have had immediate or strong impact on their effectiveness when used for cutting, and that such variability may have been related to factors other than functional issues.


Functionality Efficiency Handaxes Cutting Acheulean Performance characteristics 



We are grateful to Noreen von Cramon-Taubadel and five anonymous reviewers at JAMT for helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper. Furthermore, we thank the participants for committing a substantial amount of time to this project. AJKM’s work on this project was supported by a University of Kent 50th Anniversary Research Scholarship. SJL’s work is supported by the Research Foundation for the State University of New York.

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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Anthropology and ConservationUniversity of KentCanterburyUK
  2. 2.Department of Anthropology (Evolutionary Anthropology Laboratory)University at Buffalo, SUNYBuffaloUSA

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