Handaxes have razor sharp edges for skinning and butchering animals. Early humans knew the best piece of stone to use and the form they needed to make, and had the foresight and skill to reveal that form from a lump of flint. Tools were made by chipping off flakes from a lump (nodule) of flint in a process known as flint-knapping. It took skill and experience to get the precise tear-drop shape.
The Happisburgh revolution
Before this handaxe was found by a dog-walker on the beach at Happisburgh, the earliest known human occupation of Britain was at a site on the south coast of England called Boxgrove in West Sussex and dated to 500,000 years ago. The handaxe from Happisburgh dates to around the same time and was probably made by a member of the Homo heidelbergensis species. However, its discovery led to further investigations along the same beach, where evidence of much older human activity was uncovered.
The remains were discovered of about 80 stone tools, but no handaxes, along with organic remains that revealed what the climate, vegetation and animal life was like at the time. The animals identified include mammoths, elk, a type of beaver, horses and hyaenas as well as fish. Pine cones have been found which show the forest was coniferous, and pollen indicates heathland nearby. The remains of beetles were also found and these tell us that the climate was slightly colder during the winter than it is in England now – with a summer average of about 18°C and a winter average of -3°C; similar to southern Norway today.
Scientific dating of the sediments in which the tools and remains were found indicates a date at least 850,000 years ago. It had been thought that Britain was too far north and too cold to have been inhabited at this point, but the evidence found at Happisburgh indicates that that was not the case. No actual human remains have been found at Happisburgh, but the age of the site puts it in the range of the only European fossil human material yet known from that period, which was discovered in Spain. These fossils were of an early human known as Homo antecessor or Pioneer Man and so it is currently thought that it was Homo antecessor who was present at Happisburgh.
Footprints in the sand
The most evocative discovery, made in 2013, was of footprints on Happisburgh beach. These had been preserved in sediments and then exposed as the sea washed away later sediments on top. They were found to date to the same period as the earliest stone tools, around 850,000 years ago, making them the earliest human footprints found outside Africa, and were probably made by Homo antecessor.
The footprints were eroded away by the sea within two weeks, but they remained long enough to be recorded and analysed. The footprints seem to indicate five individuals, one or two of them children, walking along the beach. They may have walked all the way to Britain across the land bridge that once connected Britain to the continent. At that time Happisburgh was at the estuary of the river Thames, which once flowed into the sea much further north than it does today. It was pushed into its current position by a later ice age, known as the Anglian glaciation about 450,000 years ago.
The coastline at Happisburgh is still being shaped by the sea. The village that stands on the cliffs is being slowly destroyed as the sea erodes the cliffs away. This erosion, which is doing so much damage to the modern settlement, is also revealing the earliest signs of humans in northern Europe.
Happisburgh: The earliest humans in northern Europe
The Happisburgh research project on the British Museum's website including a link to the footprints.
Earliest human footprints in Britain at Happisburgh
Cromer Forest-bed Fossil Project
The Cromer Forest-bed Fossil Project aims to continue the work started at Happisburgh, asking members of the public to report fossils and stone tools found along the Norfolk coast.
BBC article about the Happisburgh footprints
Climate change chart
Chart of the key sites and climate changes over the past 700,000 years in Britain.
Britain's earliest settlers
Natural History Museum pages about Britain's earliest inhabitants from 900,000 years ago to the end of the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago and including Homo antecessor.
Continuing work at Boxgrove in West Sussex
Follow the Stone Tools link for a photo of a table covered with handaxes.
BBC History of the world in 100 objects: Olduvai stone chopping tool
Listen to the programme or read the transcript.
BBC History of the world in 100 objects: Olduvai handaxe
Listen to the programme or read the transcript. Also see A bigger picture.
Flintknapper explaining tools
Video of a flint knapper explaining the tools he uses. Videos of handaxes being made can be found easily on the internet.