There were no handaxes at the beginning of the Pleistocene, and none at the end, but for one million years in between this was the tool of choice for stone age man. Although everpresent in stone age culture, the exact purpose and use of this tool remains a mystery.

The Pleistocene lasted from two million years ago to the present., which is called the Holocene. At the beginning of the Pleistocene primitive man was already using fire and making stone, bone, and wooden tools. He wore animal skins scraped clean with stone scrapers, cut in straight lines and stitched together with leather laces.

The reason handaxes seem to have no specific purpose is probably because they served a general purpose. They could could be used for cutting meat, scraping skins, chopping wood, digging holes, hammering bone or wood, and perhaps as a last resort defense against wild animals -- perhaps sort of a Stone Age Swiss army knife. The proliferation and abundance of handaxes suggests that perhaps everyone had one. As techniques for making handaxes slowly improved over the millennia, these same techniques would have led to new types of specialized tools, ultimately making the handaxe obsolete.

The handaxe appears almost everywhere that early man appears (see image at left), with the exception of the very far east. Ultimately the handaxe was replaced by an array of specialized tools, and may have ceased to have any value beyond that of pure tradition and culture. Perhaps every boy who came of age was given his own handaxe, or perhaps they came to have only ritualistic use. Some late handaxes were excellently manufactured, but seemed to receive little actual use. A number have been found that were deliberately driven point first into the ground and left, for unknown reasons.

Handaxes come in many shapes and sizes, and many styles unique to cultures of specific periods and in specific geographical areas. Almost all handaxes have a point, are sized for the hand and shaped to be held. Almost no handaxes have notches for mounting. Attempts to dramatize Stone Age man as a crude and warlike savage often show handaxes mounted as oversized spearpoints. Such comic personification says more about our violent modern culture than it does about this pristine world of teenage hunters (average age 19) who spent their time on beaches and riverbanks. They rarely lived beyond the age of 35, not because of hardship, but more probably because of disease, since even minor cuts could cause fatal infections.

These youthful cavepeople made fine stone tools, works of art, and spears and arrows for hunting, but they made no weapons for killing other humans until about 26,000 BCE, perhaps when leaders (older males?) became predominant. The hunters of the stone age enjoyed abundant game during warmer climates, hunting many species to extinction. They had the time to create the most excellent stonework and wall paintings, circa 100,000 - 20,000 BCE. It has been noted before that the quality of stone age art has not been exceeded today -- only our technology has improved.

At the right is an early chopper from about 2,000,000 BCE. Chopper industries preceded handaxes but led directly to them as tool-making methods evolved. Choppers, also an all-purpose tool, were the first stone tools to be made rather than 'found'.