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Curator's Choice: Neanderthal hand axe

Photograph of three Neanderthal hand axes from Africa, Asia and Europe

© Photo Credit: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution

    • Back in the Stone Age, Neanderthals roamed much of the world. They were a close relative of modern humans, or homo sapiens. We both had a common ancestor, but the Neanderthals all died out about 40,000 years ago.

      Neanderthals looked similar to modern humans but were probably stronger than us. You can find out more about what our ancient ancestors looked like here.

      The Natural History Museum have recreated what Neanderthal man would have looked like in their exhibition Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story. You can see one of their recreations below.

      A model of a Neanderthal, showing its head and shoulders.© The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London
      Although they weren’t able to make the same number of tools that we can, Neanderthals did make use of stone tools, which is why we call that period of prehistory the Stone Age.

      The most common Neanderthal tool that experts find is a hand axe. These are usually made of flint or another hard stone. Neanderthals would take these stones and break them, chipping them into a useful shape.

      Elizabeth Walker, a curator at National Museum Cardiff, told a journalist from our Culture24 site about her favourite object in the collection – a hand axe which could be 60,000 years old.

      This is what Elizabeth had to say:

      "This is a hand axe found during excavations at Coygan Cave, near Laugharne, Carmarthenshire. It is of a form typically made by a Neanderthal and was left at the cave with another similar tool sometime between 60,000 and 35,000 years ago.

      An image of a carved stone object pointed at the top.
      The hand axe found at Coygan Cave, Carmarthenshire.

      Findings like this hint that Neanderthals may have lived in the Carmarthenshire area, but we have no evidence of their physical remains. The two axes we have were found near the wall of the cave, and it’s been suggested they were deliberately left by their owners, who intended to return to the cave to use them on a future visit.

      What happened to those owners is unknown, as we have no Neanderthal remains of this date from sites in Wales. It’s interesting to speculate, though. Perhaps they were passing through and sheltered in the cave for the night, before setting off down the valley the following morning to hunt big game.

      This is a particularly good example of a Neanderthal hand axe. Real, true Neanderthal tools tend to be beautifully crafted, and very distinctive in their shape and form, quite unlike those made by their ancestors. There’s a sense that this was made with a certain amount of pride.

      An image of a woman holding up a beige stone object, a hand axe, with skulls in the background.
      Curator Elizabeth Walker holding the hand axe underneath some pretty spooky-looking early human skulls.

      To begin with, the stone would have been knocked into shape using a hard, hammer-like instrument, perhaps a pebble. The thinner, finer flakes would have been removed using a softer material such as bone or antler – you can really see the effect of that across the surface of the object.

      Neanderthals are fascinating. They shared a common ancestor with us, but they died out sometime after modern humans like ourselves entered Britain.
      It’s a very strange sensation to look at a tool made by a Neanderthal and consider that it was essentially made by a different species.”

      You can read more about Elizabeth’s favourite object at our grown up site, Culture24.
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