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.
For the first time since Evans presented his finds to the Society of Antiquaries in June 1859, the original flint stone will be displayed during a conference at the Society of Antiquaries on June 2nd. To mark the 150th anniversary of Evans’ lecture, speakers will discuss the circumstances of the famous discovery, the place of the find in Victorian science and the establishment of human antiquity. An article on the discovery is published in the June issue of the journal Antiquity. An entire section of the journal is notably devoted to the work of Charles Darwin and to the discovery of the axe.
In our 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
For further information on Darwin and on the conflict between supporters of Darwin's theory of evolution and Creationists, read our articles The Descent of Genius: Charles Darwin's Brilliant Career and America's Difficulty with Darwin