Genesis Object

Roman: This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.

In the beginning, there was design. At least according to designer and author Will Lidwell.

Will: Design is the oldest human discipline, older than humanity itself.

Roman: And Will believes that in this oldest of old disciplines, everything ever designed–.

Will: Spaceships, buildings, pyramids, weapons, clothing, artwork, everything.

Roman: Can be traced back to a single designed object, the first designed object.

Will: This is as close to a genesis object as we have. I mean, this is where it all begins.

Male Speaker 1: This is where it all began.

Will: If design had its own Cosmos series, this would be episode one, I think this is the greatest, grandest like, most interesting story in the field of design. It has it all– mystery, intrigue, controversy.

Roman: We are on the edge of our seats, Will.

Will: Wait for it like you’d like the drum roll here.

[drum roll]

Will: The first designed object was the Acheulean hand axe.

Roman: The Acheulean hand axe, ladies and gentlemen. Honestly, it doesn’t look like an axe at all. There’s no handle, there’s no metal. Honestly, it should be called Acheulean pointy hand rock.

Will: A hand axe is made of rock and it’s teardrop shaped and if you join your hands together, is if to pray: fingers together and thumbs in– this is almost the exact shape and size of an Acheulean hand axe.

Roman Mars: The term “Acheulean” refers to where the first specimens where found which was a dig site and Saint-Acheul, France but they’ve been found in a lot of other places.

Terrence: We find that Acheulean tools are found almost exclusively in Africa, in Europe and South Asia.

Roman: This is Terrence Deacon.

Terrence: I’m Terrence Deacon, I’m a professor of Biological Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Roman: Berkeley has a whole bunch of samples of these hand axes.

Terrence: This is another hand axe, you can see that it’s not quite so symmetric and nice, although it’s sharp at its edge–.

Roman Mars: Some are sharp all along the entire perimeter, some aren’t. Some are perfectly symmetrical and some are not. But those hand axes in the UC, Berkeley basement aren’t actual primordial hand axes, these are replicas made by graduate students.

Terrence: Yes, graduate students. In fact, there have been courses here in which one of the challenges is to make tools.

Roman: And the point of this challenge for the graduate students is to see how involved this process is in making one of these pointy rocks, the way the early humans would have.

Terrence: You break off big pieces with large rocks and large strikes and then you break off these little edges– you shape the edge with smaller pieces.

Roman: I just love the image of a bunch of grad students sitting round, smashing rocks together. Sometimes they have to do it for a while, someone really practiced at it can make a hand axe in something like 15 minutes to half an hour.

Terrence: But to make a really fine tool, really carefully shaped tool, you’re probably talking about an hour to two hours.

Roman: Acheulean hand axes require time, effort and skill to make. They were a product of a design process, the first design process. But the Acheulean hand axe was not the first tool, the first tool was–

Terrence: Basically, a rock that is chipped with just a handful of major strikes to produce a few sharp edges. Not very sophisticated tools.

Roman: Anthropologists call these Oldowan tools, our Homo Habilis ancestors used them to bash open bones and scrape meat off of them around two million years ago. Though this kind of technique isn’t unique to humans.

Terrence: This could be done even by South American monkeys, the capuchin monkeys– they get these large pine nuts and they have hammerstones that they can then lift up and bash these things until they open up, they know what they want to achieve but they actually simply go out and select something that will accomplish that.

Roman: Rather than actually design something.

Terrence: Chimpanzees, for example, stripping the leaves and the side branches off of a little branch, they can stick it down a termite nest and get the termites to bite it, and they can eat the termites that way.

Roman: So this requires cunning, yes. But craft? Not really. So early humans understood the importance of Oldowan tools, those sharp rocks. And they realized that they can fashion more precise tools by sharpening rocks purposefully.

Terrence: So it’s not just adventitious production. Now, it’s planned production.

Roman: So the hand axe is the first designed object– at least that we can find. If there were any– say, wooden tools that are human like ancestors made, those have long since disintegrated. But even there are other examples, hand axes are really significant.

Terrence: With the Acheulean hand axe, with the Acheulean technology showing up, we suddenly now find people making people– I say they are our ancestors, making tools with an end in mind, they’re making them in advance, they almost certainly have to carry them with them. They don’t just make it on the spot, they take time to make them, they take thought to make them and you’re shaping them towards a particular shape for some particular use which we today don’t know.

Will: We don’t know. We don’t know how they were used. That’s the crazy mystery here so this is where get into the intrigue.

Roman: That’s Will Lidwell again.

Will: Their ideas, right– so smart people are working on the problem and there are like three theories.

Roman: There are more than three.

Will: If you want to talk about more theories, I can talk about more theories but I’ll stop at three unless you’ll tell me otherwise.

Roman: Will Lidwell has three favorite theories as to why the hand axe appeared.

Will: So all right. Theory number one of how it was used is the multi-tool theory. So theory number one is that the Acheulean hand axe was the original Swiss army knife, primarily used for butchering meat but it’s also good for breaking open nuts and digging up grubs or whatever else you might need. So the strength of this theory is it fits with where the patterns you see on a lot of the hand axes that are found.

Roman: Here’s the problem with theory number one. In some cases, the full perimeter of the axe is sharp and remember, this is a hand axe that you’re holding in the palm of your hand. So if you wanted to use it, there would be the sharp blade digging into your palm. Another problem with theory one is that some of the axes are symmetrical which is a lot of extra effort that isn’t really necessary if you’re just using it to break up nuts or cut meat.

Will: So to address some of those problems, we get into theory number two. This is my personal favorite, the sexy hand axe theory.

Roman: The quote, unquote “sexy hand axe theory” proposes that these tools didn’t have a use per se. They were created mostly as a way of showing off.

Will: Like the feathers of the peacock. The goal wasn’t to create a functional tool for butchering but a symbolic tool for made attraction. Making these things is really, really hard. Why spend so much time doing it unless you’re showing off, right? You’re showing the opposite sex of what you can do.

Roman: But there are a lot of experts who were doubtful of this one including anthropologists, Terrence Deacon.

Terrence: Not all of them are beautiful teardrop shapes. They were all that nice and neat and symmetrical. There is one interesting exception and I mean one.

Roman: One beautiful 350,000-year-old exception.

Terrence: A hand axe was located at the bottom of a kind of well in Southern Spain. It looks as though bodies were tossed down here, and one of the things they found in this well so to speak, it’s just a cave well, is a hand axe that was made of a kind of rose quartz looking stuff, really pretty. It doesn’t look like it was ever used. Not a sexy hand axe but this may be the first indications that they were beginning to sort of grieve over the death of someone or that there is some kind of ritual issue here which are beautiful hand axe is somehow playing a role.

Roman: Okay, okay. So Will’s third favorite theory is still a really fun one.

Will: Number three is pretty fun. Number three in a close follow on to my favorite, to sexy hand axes to killer frisbee theory. So in the killer frisbee theory, hand axes were made to be projectiles. So thrown in the passion of the discus in the Olympics.

Roman: A lot of hand axes are found near Riverbanks and so the hypothesis goes that hundreds would wait for herds of animals to come and then they would bombard them with hand axes. This might not be enough to make a kill, but the stone would name a few and give the hunters an opportunity to charge.

Will: This hypothesis explains why it looks the way it does. Like why the hand axes sharp all the way around, why it’s so symmetrical, why it’s so aerodynamic.

Roman: Well again, not all of them are sharp all the way around and perfectly symmetrical.

Terrence: Was it was used like as a frisbee, was it used as a weapon. I really have my doubts about that. I like the Swiss army knife view. In part, because it looks like it’s a one tool fits all. It was clearly something that we see again and again and again and again, all over of the world. That means it was very effective and if you don’t find a lot of diversity of tools, it was almost certainly used for more than one thing.

Roman: But whatever the hand axe was used for, it must have done a really good job because this basic design was used for a mind-blowingly long time.

Will: Hominid adults were literally teaching, hominid children– how to make hand axes for more than a million years. Passing the knowledge down from generation to generation. So you compare that to any modern product life cycle, it’s just crazy long.

Roman: So long that our human minds can barely wrap our heads around it.

Terrence: We have no conception of that time frame is our understanding of history is only maybe five thousand, ten thousand years. It’s our biggest understanding of history. We’re talking about something that stayed the same, a culture that was constant for a million years, that’s pretty remarkable.

Roman: No matter what the Acheulean hand axe was actually used for, just the mere existence of a designed object that is so old has huge implications.

Will: I often have students or colleagues think that the design in new field like a 20th century invention when in fact, it’s the most ancient of all academic disciplines before there was mathematics or engineering or science or art or music or poetry– before there was philosophy, literature, religion or even language, there was design.

Roman: 99% Invisible is produced by the Cracker Jack team of Avery Trufelman, Katie Mingle, Sam Greenspan and me, Roman Mars.

Will: Whether you’re building websites or you’re doing industrial design or architecture to have that sense of history, to have those roots to me is everything.

Roman: Special thanks to Will Lidwell for bringing the whole hand axe story to us, Will’s book, “Universal Principles of Design” is one of my two go-to recommendations for books about design, it’s fun, insightful, a quick hit encyclopedia of all kinds of design principles. I consult it all the time, I highly recommend it. We are a project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and produced out of the offices of Arcsine, an architectural firm in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.

  1. Early hominids were a lot smarter than we give them credit for. How about wrapping a piece of thick animal hide around the axe to hang on to it? A glove? what a novel idea. Maybe even tie or wrap it onto a lever? I suggest you think a bit more intelligently.

    RH Grass Valley, California

  2. You wrote… “Even after finding so many of them, we don’t know how the Acheulean hand axe was used. It’s a mystery. There are a number of ideas and explanations as to why the hand axe appeared.”

    My response: The mother of invention created these. Imagine your tribe being attacked by a superior force for your dried meat and food stores or for your women. Do you think that these early tools would just be laying around today if they weren’t comparable to a prehistoric sidearm used for either defense or offense? Once one tribe starts carrying knotted branches with these buggers embedded in them, then everyone would want one.

  3. This brought back memories. I worked with replicas of Acheulean hand-axes in a wind tunnel for my senior project in engineering school back in 1995 (for the third, discus hunting weapon theory). I actually got to touch an actual hand-axe one day. I rubbed the surface with my finger to get a feel for the surface roughness, which earned a horrified look on the anthropologist’s face. Whoops.

  4. Listener

    It seems strange that if something was in use for a million years, it could only have one use. Isn’t it logical that all three theories, plus a thousand others, were all true at some point?

  5. Jett

    Listening to this podcast, could you add the actual swiss army knife to your list of possible podcast ideas?

  6. A

    Roman, Roman, Roman!
    I am a longtime listener and have followed the dynamic emergent design of 99 percent invisible.
    Unabashed fan.
    this last episode Genesis Object…..
    Something about the presentation was patronizing, the whole “Sexy Hand Axe”, etc.
    A kind of “those wacky primitives!”

    The stone axe is a tool that changed human development and culture.
    It was THE definitive tool, and the craftspeople that made them were as gifted as any top jet propulsion designer.
    If you look at stone axes in the National Museum in Copenhagen, you’ll notice something interesting.
    When the Stone Age eventually transitioned into the Bronze Age, it wasn’t sudden.
    It was a slow transformation.
    The Bronze Age brought casting to weapon/tool making.
    But in the beginning, it was mostly done south of the Nordic countries.
    So traders traveling back and forth would bring up metal tools.
    The master stone axe makers started COPYING the bronze tools in flint!!
    Down to the casting lines!

    Another thing- anthropologists and archaeologists are great at theories.
    Don’t look to them for good tool making examples though, the best tool makers are craftspeople.
    (Apologies to graduate students)
    And craftspeople, the ones who make tools, are intuitive about the use of older tools.
    A scientist can guess, the craftsperson has a much better idea of how to use something.

    Those stone axes from thousands of years ago- no one has been able to reproduce those exactly.
    They are masterpieces.
    If you look at one of them, measure them digitally, they are so perfectly balanced its mind blowing.

    The whole “Sexy Handaxe” thing- of course there were symbolic tools.
    In the Nordic countries they would sacrifice tools. In those days (before the Viking gods came around, living up in the sky), the religion was fertility based, so the conduit to the other world was through the ground.
    So tools and people were sacrificed in the bogs.
    We don’t know why or what it meant. We often assume its to accompany or appease.
    But anyway!
    I wanted to convey the serious design qualities of the hand-axe.
    No need to dress it up to make it cool.

    I continue to be one of the 99 Percent Invisible faithful.

  7. Great episode! I first heard about this from Bill Bryson’s “Brief History of Everything” and was glad to hear you were doing an episode on it. The point that stood out for me in his book was he same as for your podcast: That they did this for a *million* years. What a span!

    But what jumped out while listening to your podcast today was that *today* we find them near riverbanks, and how that’s factoring into the theories of their use. But…rivers change course. In a million years, even geology & continent positions change a bit. The rivers we find them in today probably didn’t exist then. So maybe they are widespread but where a river run, they are exposed.

    I realize this isn’t a paleontology website so my musings are going to end here. But thanks for the great show and a topic worth musing.

  8. The first tool was a stick. Various sizes for various tasks. Hunting. Itching backs and ear canals. Sticks being hand shaped by breaking and peeling splinters. Doesn’t make the hand axe less badass. It was obviously a multitool and not a projectile haha!! Who throws their coveted hand axe when an abundance of spears and stones work better.

    “Back in my day, all we had growin up was a hand axe. And my pappy. And his pappy. And his pappy. And his pappy. And his pappy. And his pappy…”

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