This is the Olduvai hand axe. It sits in a far corner of the British Museum, nestled among artifacts from earliest human history. It’s around 1.2 million years old. It’s strikingly beautiful. And it marks the beginning of the distinctively human practices of tool-making and art that lead directly to what you’ll find here.
Hand axes are among the first great inventions of humanity, and probably came into being at the dawn of the development of both language and culture. They made it possible for the first time for people to cut with skill and precision, and would have opened up the possibility of turning animal skins and wood into products that went far beyond the immediate need for food.
They mark the moment when we extended ourselves from living in the world as it is to actively and consciously shaping it, when we first began to create the complex web of tools, words, work and culture that – a million or so years later – could bring about the society of today.
Millions of hand axes have been discovered around the world, but what makes the Olduvai axe so striking is that it’s much bigger than can be comfortably held in the hand. Its size renders it unusable for most purposes. In all other respects it’s a perfect tool – beautifully balanced, sharp edged, symmetrical – the result of many hours of skilled and careful labour. But it’s also a work of art, with a purpose that is a much symbolic as practical, an expression of the artfulness of its maker. That it was made at all reflects the human concern for beauty, for creativity and ingenuity, and for expression. And it’s deeply entwined with the practical world of making and doing, the work of providing for a life well lived.
The industrial age of the 20th century taught us that efficiency and predictability were to be prized above all else. Big organisations, mass production, standardisation all became possible. But the rise in living standards this brought still left many people’s experience of life flat, mundane. When we’ve tired of climbing the ladder or pursuing status, we find that living fully, fiercely, artfully and courageously are needed to lift us beyond the ordinary into the life and work from which we can make our fullest contribution. The Olduvai hand axe, from the dawn of our history, is a reminder of this – and the inspiration for everything that follows.