Over the past months, news headlines have been dominated by events marking the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his Origins of Species. Six months prior to Darwin’s publication, however, another hugely significant discovery was made, when a flint axe was found in northern France. The discovery challenged traditional Biblical explanations of evolution before Darwin’s theory was made public. The axe had been presumed lost for the past 150 years, but a couple of months ago, it was rediscovered by Professor Clive Gamble, an archaeologist in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, and Dr Robert Kruszynski of the Natural History Museum.
The implement is considered the most important stone tool in the establishment of the geological antiquity of human kind. In April 1859, two English businessmen, Joseph Prestwich and John Evans, respectively interested in geology and archaeology, travelled to Amiens to search for evidence to prove the great antiquity of humans. They were searching for a specific type of stone tool which they wanted to extract themselves from undisturbed ground and which had to come from the same geological levels as the bones of extinct animals such as wooly mammoth and rhino. Accompanied by scientific witnesses and a photographer, they eventually discovered a flint axe, on April 27th 1859, in a gravel pit in St Acheul near Amiens.
Although it was impossible to date the implement precisely, the discovery dispelled the biblical view of Creation and provided evidence for a far more remote human antiquity than had hitherto been imagined. Our ancestors did not date back just 6,000 years; but to the era of ice age mammoths. The implement was exhibited at the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries in London, in May 1859, alongside the photograph of its discovery. On June 2nd, six months before Darwin’s publication of his Origin of Species, Sir John Evans (1823—1908) presented the stone in a lecture to the Society of Antiquaries. The axe thereafter disappeared, however, for 150 years.
In 2008, Professor Gamble began to research the axe for the 150th anniversary of Prestwich and Evans’ discovery. He explained why it had been forgotten for so long: ‘The answer is simple […]. As stone handaxes go it is an unfinished piece, roughly made by a human ancestor 400,000 years ago. Prestwich and Evans would have been amazed at such an age, but they had the task of convincing the doubters in London and Paris that it was indeed a human artefact. Subsequently, they found many better-made pieces, some entirely symmetrical that left no doubt that these were produced by design and not accident’.
The Natural History Museum had received Prestwich’s collection in 1896. Dr Robert Kruszynski eventually discovered a triangular shaped tool with a small label with the words ‘St. Acheul Amiens April 27 – 59’ in the museum’s collection at the end of May.
In a History Today article published in May 2008, Clive Gamble revisits the time of the discovery of the flint axe and links this to contemporary debates about the antiquity of the human mind Breaking the Time Barrier