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banded ironstone, Kathu Pan,
127mm x  248mm,
ca. 750 000 BP,
McGregor Museum, Kimberley
Photo Michael Cope

The 'Master Hand-Axe' was found embedded in an exposed stratigraphic sequence in a sinkhole at Kathu Pan in the Northern Cape, South Africa, and dated by association with tooth-plates of the extinct Elephas Reckii Reckii, or Reck's Elephant to approximately 750 000 BP.

It is thus the oldest artifact which is indisputably aesthetic - worked for beauty and symmetry, perfectly oriented, and worked considerably beyond the functional requirements of the hand-axe, which could have been achieved with half or fewer blows.

The technology which produced it is known as the Acheulian, and the artifacts are thought to be made by Homo ergaster (Homo Erectus in Africa), a diverse grouping of early humans commonly imagined as small-brained, small-jawed and robustly built, with heavy eyebrow ridges.

The knapping of Acheulian bifaces is notoriously difficult, requiring great strength and precision to be maintained over a large number of sequenced procedures. Hand-axes are extremely common in the region where this one comes from, occurring in the billions at nearby Kathu Townlands, but no other axe yet discovered is as finely made. This one eschews the more common 'sinuous edge', orienting the edge almost perfectly along one of the bands. It has exploited the banding in the stone to give the scalloped effect.

It is a show-off piece, a masterpiece, a demonstration of the scope of its own technology, of subtlety and control of technique.

To illustrate the symmetry of the axe,
it has been surrounded with a pair of
mirrored Bezier curves on the left.










Kathu Townlands