Palaeolithic Yorkshire – Acheulian handaxes
The Palaeolithic period, in spite of the scarcity of finds and the understandably greater emphasis placed on sites and finds in the south and east of the UK, is not without discoveries from the north-east of England characteristic of the period. Primarily dependent on the successive advance and retreat of ice sheets during the Pleistocene epoch, the approximate northernmost limit of Lower and Middle Palaeolithic settlement based on the evidence of recorded inland (as opposed to coastal or marine) finds and sites just grazes the southeast of the county, taking in most of modern Holderness and the Yorkshire Wolds in a stretch from Spurn to Flamborough Head.
One of the most diagnostic artefacts of the period is the Acheulian handaxe, named after the type-site of St. Acheul in France where they were first recognised in the 1930s. The Acheulian handaxe is the veritable icon of the Lower Palaeolithic. Since they are found from North Wales to southern Africa and from Iberia to China, it is possible to talk of an Acheulian world which lasted for at least one million years. Lower Palaeolithic ‘Acheulian’ hand axes in the UK date from the second half of the Hoxnian interglacial period (approximately 225,000-200,000 BC) though more recently it has been claimed that Acheulian technology lasted until about 100,000 BC.
The key British find-site is Hoxne in Suffolk, which gives its name to the UK version of this period, the Hoxnian.
Not surprisingly, as examples of some of the earliest human tools, much has been written about the significance of handaxes for understanding human evolution. Various authors have seen in them vital evidence for the discussion of early hominids with respect to the development of language, technological capacity, hand-to-eye co-ordination, choice and exploitation of raw materials, sexual selection and cognitive evolution, to name but a few.