The Elephant in the handaxe: Lower palaeolithic ontologies and representations

Ran Barkai*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Indigenous hunter-gatherers view the world differently than do WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) societies. They depend - as in prehistoric times - on intimate relationships with elements such as animals, plants and stones for their successful adaptation and prosperity. The desire to maintain the perceived world-order and ensure the continued availability of whatever is necessary for human existence and well-being thus compelled equal efforts to please these other-than-human counterparts. Relationships of consumption and appreciation characterized human nature as early as the Lower Palaeolithic; the archaeological record reflects such ontological and cosmological conceptions to some extent. Central to my argument are elephants and handaxes, the two pre-eminent Lower Palaeolithic hallmarks of the Old World. I argue that proboscideans had a dual dietary and cosmological significance for early humans during Lower Paleolithic times. The persistent production and use of the ultimate megaherbivore processing tool, the handaxe, coupled with the conspicuous presence of handaxes made of elephant bones, serve as silent testimony for the elephant-handaxe ontological nexus. I will suggest that material culture is a product of people's relationships with the world. Early humans thus tailored their tool kits to the consumption and appreciation of specific animal taxa: in our case, the elephant in the handaxe.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)349-361
Number of pages13
JournalCambridge Archaeological Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2021


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