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Handaxes & Fluvial Deposits: 

Archives of Hominin Societal Norms 

The significance of shape variation in Acheulean handaxes has been a core focus of my research for almost 30 years, particularly the question of whether handaxes had cultural significance, relating to the social practices and relationships of hominin individuals and populations, or if it they were just the mundane consequence of limited technology, function, raw material constraints and recycling.  How we answer this question has significant implications for our understanding of the cultural, cognitive and social sophistication of archaic hominins, and a profound effect on the academic and popular narratives we construct around them.  From the 1860s to the 1960s, the first type of interpretation dominated archaeological discourse, but during the past 50 years, it has been the second type of interpretation that has prevailed, with workers understanding artefact form in non-cultural terms and as an indicator of the hominin makers’ intellectual short-comings. This shift, of course, reflected seismic theoretical and methodological shifts within archaeology, but the impression that artefact morphology had no chronological (and therefore cultural) significance, and the conviction with which non-cultural interpretations were held, were founded on an illusion, one created by the use of a compressed chronological framework.  

With the adoption of an ‘expanded chronology’ for the Middle Pleistocene, based on the greater number of warm and cold episodes evident in the marine oxygen isotope record from deep ocean cores, has come the recognition of a meaningful pattern of artefact types. The period 500,000 to 300,000 years ago saw the sustained presence of humans (Homo heidelbergensis/early Homo neanderthalensis) in Europe, leaving a range of handaxe and non-handaxe assemblages as evidence of their activities. In northern latitudes, human occupation was interrupted by several climatic cycles, from interglacial to glacial and back again, creating an episodic pattern of settlement, extinction/retreat and recolonization. These effects were particularly felt in Britain, a peninsular at the NW edge of Europe that was repeatedly isolated by rising seas and periodically glaciated, leaving a unique record that charts the appearance/disappearance of a series of distinct human groups and their unique stone tool assemblage types.

Table below: Current Interpretations to be tested by this project, correlating Roe’s Groups, Characteristic Handaxe Types, MIS Stage and approximate age in yrs

A table with images and detail about six types of handaxes

This research forms one element of long-standing research partnerships with David Bridgland (Durham), Danielle Schreve (RHUL), Nick Ashton (British Museum), Tom White (NHM), Kirsty Penkman (York), inter aliaIt’s current direction was a happy accident – emerging from a table originally intended to show that chronological patterning was still absent, despite major developments in dating techniques and correlations with the marine isotope curve, increasingly to the sub-stage level, but which found a rather different picture: each interglacial has its own character, in both the nature and style of the artefacts produced. 

In contrast to most recent interpretations, we now regard the patterns in the archaeological record as reflecting localised cultural traditions, social norms that signalled individual or group identity and an aesthetic sense.  Our new interpretations are conceptually different from 20th century cultural-historical approaches (which saw linear or bushy traditionsequated style with ethnicity and often manipulated geological and geographical data to allow cultural progression) and are underpinned by more recent theoretical models of cultural transmission and social technologies in the changing environments of the Pleistocene, in particular the concept of normativity.  The latter will form the explicit focus of a new project currently in development with Ceri Shipton (previously ANU, now UCL) and Nick Ashton (BM). 

As recent work conducted with Ceri Shipton (2020) has argued, normativity is the uniquely human tendency to conform to the established conventions and institutions of a social group that exist independently of dyadic relationship. It is a key foundational trait across a broad range of human behaviours, provides the means for collective agreement about arbitrary meanings, and is essential for symbolic language. It allows humans to make assumptions about the intentions of others and thereby more accurately interpret the meaning of their communication. It is key to our social niche, creates a sense of affiliation between individuals, enables children to understand role differentiation in co-operative task, and fosters the expectation of reciprocal behaviour. The centrality of normativity to human behaviour is shown by the regular and apparently innate way it emerges during child development. Infants absorb and uphold norms very rapidly, and by the age of three begin to speak in terms of generally applicable norms: the collective ‘we’. Adult humans will persist with norms even when they are costly. Determining when and how we evolved the capacity for normativity is critical to understanding the emergence of a broad swathe of uniquely human behaviours.

The picture from Britain clearly identifies normativity in the late Acheuleanparticularly in the Thames Valley (a second edition of Bridgland’s Quaternary of the Thames, co-authored with MJW is planned).  A recent paper with Ceri Shipton (2020) has begun the process of testing these patterns using 3-D images and new computerized analyses that will hopefully enhance or supersede the picture from Derek Roe’s classic 1961-1967 study.   The Farnham River and the Kentish Stour are critical to further testing the model, and collaborations with Farnham Museum (including the recently discovered notebooks of Henry Bury) and Maidstone Museum, and a new PT PhD student (Peter Knowles) examining the Stour, are in progress. 

Such patterns are more difficult to identify in Europe, due to different geographical and demographical conditions in the past, as well as different geological frameworks and research histories in the present (e.g. there is no equivalent to The English Rivers Palaeolithic Survey)but the Somme and Seine are the most obvious places to look, if suitable collections can be isolated from the complex morass of historical collections from these river valleys. 

This ongoing project thus seeks to enhance and expand previous studies, addressing questions concerning the nature of material culture in the deep past, and reinvigorating the task of reconstructing the cultural geography of Lower Palaeolithic Europe.  Several grant applications are in development.  


  • Shipton, C & White, M.  2020. Handaxe types, colonization waves, and social norms in the British Acheulean. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 31: 102352. 
  • White, M.J. , Ashton, N.M. & Bridgland, D.R. 2019. Twisted handaxes in Middle Pleistocene Britain and their implications for regional-scale cultural variation and the deep history of Acheulean hominin groups. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 85: 61-81 
  • White, M. and Foulds, F. 2018. Symmetry is its own reward: on the character and meaning of Acheulean handaxe symmetry in the Middle Pleistocene. Antiquity 362: 304-316 
  • Bridgland, D.R. and White, M.J. 2018. The Farnham River terrace staircase: an optimal record of the Thames Palaeolithic. Earth Heritage 49: 49-51 
  • White, M.J. and Bridgland, D.R. 2018. Thresholds in lithic technology and human behaviour in MIS 9 Britain. In: M. Pope, J. McNabb, J and C. Gamble (eds), Crossing the Human Threshold: Dynamic Transformation and Persistent Places during the Middle Pleistocene. London: Routledge pp 165-192 
  • White, M.J. Bridgland, D.R., Schreve, D.C. White, T.S. and Penkman K,P. 2018. Well-dated fluvial sequences as templates for patterns of handaxe distribution: understanding the record of Acheulean activity in the Thames and its correlatives. Quaternary International 449: 23-57 
  • Chauhan, P, Bridgland, D.R., Moncel, M-H., Antoine, P., Bahain, J-J., Briant, R., Cunha, P., Locht, J-L., Martins, A., Schreve, D., Shaw, A., Vinchet, P., Westaway, R., White, M.J., White, T.S. 2017. Fluvial deposits as an archive of early human activity: progress during the 20 years of the Fluvial Archives Group. Quaternary Science Reviews  
  • Bridgland, D.R. & White, M.J. 2015. Chronological variations in handaxes: patterns detected from fluvial archives in NW Europe. Journal of Quaternary Science 30: 623-638 
  • White, M.J. 2015.  ‘Dancing to the Rhythms of the Biotidal Zone’: Settlement history and culture history in Middle Pleistocene Britain. In:  Coward, F., Hosfield, R. , Pope, M. and Wenban-Smith, F. Society, Settlement and CognitionCambridge University Press: Cambridge. Pp154-173 
  • Bridgland, D.R. & White, M.J. 2014 Fluvial archives as a framework for the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic: patterns of artefact distribution and potential chronological implications Boreas 43: 543-555
  • Emerging from research conducted for Pettitt, P. and White, M. 2012. The British Palaeolithic. London: Routledge.