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Athena Review, Vol.4, no.1: Homo erectus

Saint Acheul, France: handaxes and the beginnings of paleolithic archaeology

[Box 3 in Introduction to Homo erectus]

The northern French village of Saint Acheul along the River Somme near Amiens is one of the original find sites of early bifacial or Mode 2 stone tool industries, and is the type site of “Acheulean” bifaces whose oldest known examples are from Konso-Gardula in Ethiopia (1.5 mya). The overall time span of Acheulean technology, lasting until about 200,000 years ago, is roughly contemporary with that of Homo erectus and H. Heidelbergensis, although Asian and European H. erectus evidently did not use Mode 2 tools (see The Colonization of Europe by Homo Erectus, by Sarah Milliken). While St. Acheul’s occupations of 450,000 BP and after are relatively late in this sequence, as the type site of the Acheulean handaxe (the key diagnostic element of Mode 2 lithic tools) it represents a focal point of the first stages of archaeology in Europe.

[Fig. 1: Jacques Boucher de Perthes (1788–1868).]

Initial discoveries of stone tools in the Somme Valley around Saint Acheul were made in the 1830s and 40s by Jacques Boucher de Perthes (fig. 1), a customs officer in Abbeville who discovered quantities of “pre-Celtic” stone tools and animal fossils from quarries near Abbeville, including the bifacially-worked stones (fig.2) which he called haches antediluviennes (“antediluvian axes”). Boucher de Perthes began publishing and exhibiting these stone tools in Paris in 1838. A satisfactory explanation of the stone tools found with fossils of extinct Pleistocene mammals, as he stated in his 3-volume treatise Antiqués Celtiques et Antédiluviennes (1848), demanded far more time depth than provided by biblical interpretations.

[Fig. 2: Bifacial handaxes made from chert cobbles on upper Somme terraces at Saint Acheul (a-e) and Cagny (f-h) (Museé de Picardie, Amiens; photo: Athena Review).]

At first such claims met with derision from local scientists, many of whom still believed fossil layers were relatively recent and caused by “diluvial” catastrophes. But two geologists, Rigollot and Gaudry, who successively dug at Saint-Acheul in order to disprove Boucher de Perthes’ theories, ended up themselves finding flint tools associated with extinct animal bones, and were converted to his views. These Somme valley findings were paralleled by 1850-60s discoveries at Brixham Cave in Devon, England where flint tools were similarly found with fossils of extinct lions, mammoths, and wooly rhinoceroses (Daniel 1950).

Visitors today to the Saint Acheul upper terrace exposures can see two main layers of chert (flint) cobbles alternating with sandy silt (fig. 3). The lower cobble deposits were exposed to the surface some 450,000 - 200,000 years ago, and at that time were extensively quarried for tool-making by Lower Paleolithic inhabitants along the Somme.

[Fig. 3:  Exposures of alluvial cobbles in the ancient upper terrace of the River Somme at St. Acheul. The lower levels dated ca. 450,000 -200,000 BP yielded Acheulean handaxes (photo: Athena Review).]


Daniel, G. 1950. A Hundred Years of Archaeology. London, Duckworth

Permanent exhibitions in the Museé de Picardie in Amiens, and at the site of Saint Acheul, near Amiens.

(see also bibliography in Introduction to Homo erectus)

[Note: This article appears on p.22 of  the printed issue of Athena Review (vol.4, no.1). Copyright 2004, Athena Publications, Inc.]

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