The Acheulean Culture of Archaic Homo sapiens

Through human invention and ingenuity a great culture was to grow up worldwide that was to cause the human body to evolve into a proto-type of modern man.  This occurred through adaptation to life styles set by human culture.

The revolution started with the mastery of making fire.  This set the scene for other cultural developments.

The earliest evidence of the controlled use of fire is from Xihoudu in Shanxi Province and in Yunnan Province, China dated to 1.7 million years.  This discovery was passed on to ‘Java man’ living at Trinil on the island of Java 830 000 years ago.  It was also passed on to ‘Peking man’ living in Zhoukoudian cave in China from 460 000 to 230 000 years ago.

Fire-making may have been discovered twice independently as there are two ways to make fire.  There is evidence for the use of fire in Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa dated to a million years ago.  This would have been passed on to the inhabitants of the Cave of Hearths in South Africa dated at 700 000 to 200 000 years ago.

The Asiatic method for making fire may have been the one involving flint stones struck with pyrite to produce sparks to light tinder.  The African method could have been the bow drill method involving use of a hardwood stick, a softwood base and a bow to drive the friction of the stick. 

Use of fire reached Spain, France and England 415 000 years ago.  In Europe people undoubtedly gathered around a fire to keep warm, but the game changer was cooking.  The cooking of meat allows more of it to be consumable for humans, but also vegetables can be consumed cooked that cannot be eaten raw.

The stone tool industry of the Acheulean included the iconic Acheulean stone axe either perfectly oval or pear-shaped.  Like the Oldowan stone tool industry which continued until 500 000 years ago, it is classified as a Lower Palaeolithic stone tool industry.  These tools were not made by brutes, but by skilled stone knappers.

The Acheulean stone axe is called a ‘hand-axe’ by anthropologists.  But even Homo heidelbergensis would not be daft enough to make a sharp edge on the side of a tool that he was holding in his hand.  These stone axes were hafted onto a wooden handle in a similar way to Homo sapien’s Neolithic stone axe.

The heavy stone axe could be used to work with wood.  For example, it could be used to hollow out a tree trunk to make a dug-out canoe.  Canoes allowed for migrations and expeditions up rivers; they also allowed islands in marshland to be inhabited.

The Acheulean culture had two centres – one was China and the other South and East Africa.  Acheulean stone axes were made by Olduvai man from Kenya one million years ago.  There may have been a coalescing of these two cultures in the Near East before the spread of Acheulean culture in Europe 400 000 years ago.

Homo antecessor was a gatherer of certain edible plants.  I believe that it was Homo pekinensis in China, Homo heidelbergensis in Europe and Olduvai man in Africa who started to replant some of these plants.  I see the Acheulean culture as marked by two main types of plant cultivation: the first was the cultivation of marshes turning them into fens.  The second was the cultivation of root crops in forest clearings.  Acheulean stone axes like later Neolithic stone axes would have helped in the preparation of land for planting.

Protein in the Acheulean diet came from animals hunted using traps and spears.  Even very large animals such as elephants were hunted in this way.  There were also nets and baskets for trapping eels and fish.

So camp fires, stone axes, dug-out canoes, cultivation of marsh plants or root crops, and cooking were the basis to a prehistoric culture that spread worldwide.  The number of sites greatly increased about 500 000 years ago since the population supported by this way of life greatly increased – it increased enough to make tribal warfare frequent.  Skulls display a developed brow ridge as natural defence from being clubbed over the head by warriors from a rival tribe.

The new diet of cooked meat and mashed up root vegetables caused the jaw and teeth to become smaller and the face flatter – this is closer to the modern human condition.

Stature was medium, and the body became wider for semi-sedentary populations who did not need to run fast or constantly walk.  Greater width of the body allowed females to give birth to larger babies so brain size for Homo heidelbergensis was between 1100 cc and 1400 cc; with the average being 1200 cc.

The three main racial types were developing 500 000 years ago.  Proto-mongoloids had bronze skin and dark hair; proto-caucasoids developed the Mediterranean type with tanned white or brown skin and brown hair; and proto-negroids developed darker skin in Africa where living exposed to the sun.

The success of the Acheulean culture is that it was counted in hundreds of thousands of years, maybe 600 000 years worldwide, and not the mere 6000 years that civilization and Neolithic agriculture has to its name.

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