The most ancient artefact I possess is considerably older than the seal of Thomas Knox, the Earl of Ranfurly and Viscount Dungannon. Of its provenance I know nothing beyond the story that Laurens van der Post gave it to my father, and that it came from somewhere in the Northern Cape. It is a hand-axe, 11.0 cm long, of reddish-brown ironstone, with very slight banding. Although I know of no precise means of dating it, a rough guess can be made. Hand-axes like these were made for a very long time – for roughly a million years, up to four hundred thousand years ago, when the style fell into disuse or was supplanted by Middle Stone Age technology. From its finesse, size and symmetry we can conclude that this one is probably ‘Late Early Stone Age’, about six hundred thousand years old. More interesting to me than the numerically staggering fact of its persistence through time, for hand-axes do not rot and have remained in their billions all over South Africa, is the persistence of its design, making it an instance of the most durable system of memory ever produced generations.by humans. Although it is not clear how the tools were used or what they were used for, it has been possible to reconstruct very accurately the process of their manufacture. The making of hand-axes is by no means easy or obvious, and Royden Yates, the expert on knapping at the South African Museum, told me that the Acheulian, as the Early Stone Age style of tool manufacture is known, is the most difficult of all, requiring great strength and precision to be maintained and focused over a large number of procedures. Of the repertoire of stone tools, the symmetrical, almond-shaped hand-axe is the hardest to achieve. And yet the archaeological evidence indicates that the complex process of its production was learned and transmitted, body to body, without interruption, by relatively short-lived and small-brained humans not of our species, for a million or more years. What ritual power that learning must have carried, what awe and terror, to have replicated itself without any significant variation for all those
The rah-rah British colonists who came to White River in the 1920s seem far in the past, with Dalhousie and Meredith, Frances Stocker and E.B.J. Knox lying a little further back, then Thomas Knox and Tulsi Sahib, and far beyond them Germanicus, the Plinys, Socrates and Plato in the distant murk of the classical long-ago. Industrial civilization is about two hundred years old and what we call modernity goes back four or five hundred years. My trade of goldsmith stretches perhaps five thousand years into the past in unbroken succession.
All of them lumped together are scarcely an eye-blink in the face of the persistence of the project, not of making stone tools in general, but of remembering and teaching for a million years the manufacture of this particular tool, the almond-shaped hand-axe with a sinuous edge.