What can a handaxe say about us?

james_cole_photoI’ve just returned from leading a really exciting expedition in Tanzania, a country rich in archaeological history.

Working with our collaborators on site, Dr Pastory Bushozi from the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and Dr Martin Bates, from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, we took samples of sediments around hand axes used by ancient human ancestors for butchering animals. The reason? So that we can use some state-of-the-art methodology to  date the site for the first time and, by doing so, reveal more information about the handaxes.

What makes this so exciting? Determining how old they are will help us to shed light on who made them and for what purpose. The behaviour of our human ancestors is far more complex than often thought. Today we use material culture – the clothes we wear, for instance – to tell others something about us, and it may be possible that these handaxes, apart from their practical use, were used by our ancestors to say something about them.

Back in the UK, we are working with Dr Phillip Toms from the University of Gloucestershire, to process grains of sediment taken from the centre of each tube. Using a new method called ‘Optically Stimulated Luminescence’ he will be able to determine the last time the grains were exposed to light

For first time, using this technique, we will be able to place our site within the chronology of East African prehistory. Giving it a date will act as a springboard for conducting larger multi-national and multi-institutional research projects in the future.

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