Let me begin with the quote that started it all. It’s by Lyall Watson in his book Lightning Bird:
‘The most mysterious and wonderful thing about the hand ax is that it is unnecessarily beautiful. The delicacy and symmetry in its design, the quality of the workmanship involved and the time devoted to its manufacture all go beyond functional demand. Why did they go to all this trouble? Why did they bother, when a cruder instrument, much more simply made, would have been just as effective?’
My step to apprenticeship was finding one in a dry river bed in the Northern Cape. It was, indeed, breathtakingly beautiful and fitted snugly into my hand as it had into the palm of my forbears perhaps a million years ago.
The second step – because of a curious compulsion I cannot explain – was to make one. So I learned to knapp – the art of chipping rocks into tools. It’s not easy and one badly angled smack with a hammerstone can wreck hours of hard work.
Not having any flint, I began on glass, which has similar consistency. The result, when I got it right, was thrilling. The beauty of the teardrop form seemed embedded in the most ancient part of my DNA.
These alluring artifacts are called Acheulian hand axes. No function we can imagine seems to demand that specific shape, despite the amount of work required to achieve it. It’s difficult to imagine how it could have been used. If it was indeed an ax, there would have been grooves to tie it to a shaft. If it was hand held why was it sharp on all side?
Hand axes are found everywhere early humans appeared. In Europe they were made of flint, in the Middle East of chert and in Africa of quartzite or shale. But the extraordinary thing is their unity of style. They were manufactured in distinct communities from the Cape Province to northern Asia and separated by hundreds of thousands of years. The gaps were too great for it to have been seen and emulated.
The crafting of a hand ax from raw rock, says Lyall Watson, was our first essay in style, the first real evidence of creativity. It required a mental leap that became the bedrock of technology and which made us truly human. Something far deeper than function compelled its manufacture. What it was remains a mystery.
About the Author:
Dr Don Pinnock is an investigative journalist and photographer who, some time back, realised he knew little about the natural world. So he set out to discover it. This took him to five continents – including Antarctica – and resulted in five books on natural history and hundreds of articles. The Last Elephants, published this year with Colin Bell, is his 18th book.
His other books include:
Gang Town, which won the City Press Tafelberg Non-Fiction award,
Writing Left, a biography of the journalist Ruth First.
Voices of liberation
Gangs, Rituals & Rites of passage
Rainmaker, a novel shortlisted for the 2009 European Union Literary Award.
Just add dust,
Loveletters to Africa,
Blue Ice: Travels in Antarctica,
The Woman who Lived in a Tree and Other Perfect Strangers.
Wild as it Gets,
He has degrees in criminology, political science and African history and is a former editor of Getaway travel magazine.
He was one of the primary drafters of the White Paper that became the Child Justice Act, a trustee of the Chrysalis Academy for high-risk youths, a board member of Wilderness Foundation Africa, a member of the Conservation Action Trust and was the facilitator of the Western Cape Government’s gang strategy roadmap.
His day job is as environmental investigative journalist.