The Human Journey
The Axemaker's Gift

Turning Points in the Development of Contemporary Society

A report on The Axemaker’s Gift
Technology’s Capture and Control of Our Minds and Culture

Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1997

Available for purchase here

About the Authors: James Burke is an author, educator, and award-winning television host best known for this successful PBS series Connections. The companion books to this and several of his other series, including The Day the Universe Changed, have been best-sellers in the United States and abroad.

Robert Ornstein is the author of more than twenty books, among them New World, New Mind, The Right Mind, and the best-selling The Psychology of Consciousness. He heads the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge which is responsible for this Human Journey website. (See also:

Pages 1234

This book is about the people who gave us the world in exchange for our minds.

They are the axemakers, whose discoveries and innovations, over thousands of years, have gifted power in innumerable ways. To emperors they gave the power of death, to surgeons the power of life. Each time the axemakers offered a new way to make us rich or safe or invincible or knowledgeable, we accepted the gift and used it to change the world. And when we changed the world, we changed our minds, for each gift redefined the way we thought, the values by which we lived, and the truths for which we died.

And because each axemaker’s gift was so attractive, not evil or ugly, we always came back for more, unmindful of the cost. Each time there was no choice but to adapt to the effects of the change that followed. This has been true for every generation of our ancestors since the process began, well over a million years ago. When we used the first tool to cut more food from nature than nature was ready to offer, we changed our future. As a result, there were soon many more of us. And as our numbers grew, so did the power of those who could wield the axe most effectively. They became leaders. Most of the rest of the group followed the axe.

For tens of thousands of years, it has been our practice to use the axemaker’s gifts to take what we wanted from the world without recompense. All that mattered was a rising standard of living. Only rarely, if ever, did we look back to examine the effect of our passage on the world, because progress always led us forward toward the horizon we never expected to reach. Unless we can appreciate that axemaker gifts have always unleashed the kind of power that changes minds, we will not recognize that our survival now depends on harnessing the same power to save ourselves.

The axemakers are those who had the talent to take the pieces of the world and reshape them to make the tools to chop up the world. The precise sequential process that shaped axes would eventually generate language and logic and rules which would formalize and discipline thinking itself. Thanks to their talents and gifts, things have never been the same again.

Stone Axe

With ecological and other disasters staring at us, we must appreciate that the gifts have always unleashed the kind of power that changes minds. What we need is a new mind, and we have the means to make a new one. All we need to do is find out how it has always been done and do it to ourselves. That is the purpose of this book.

The story begins with the axemakers of ancient Africa.


Chapter 1: Getting an edge – the Axemakers of ancient Africa

Homo Habalis
Homo Habilis lived approximately 2.2
million to at least 1.6 million years ago.

Homo Habilis was the first creature to create real stone tools. Cobbles made by a fracturing process have been found in Ethiopia. These tools are what enabled us to break the link with nature, and to begin a process which has imperiled all life on the planet. The tools enabled Homo Habilus to build shelters, and to hunt in groups. These developments led to a more stable home base, and a more permanent society. These activities also laid down the mental matrix for thought, language, and culture.

Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania mapBy 2 million years ago Homo Erectus had appeared, with even more sophisticated tools. Tools from this time period have been found in Kenya and Tanzania. Slightly later, the first double-edged axes appeared, a major refinement in the usefulness of the stone implements. Homo Erectus had facilities for the mass production of axes by 700,000 years ago. These axes have been found throughout Africa, the Middle East, Europe, India, and parts of Southeast Asia. The techniques for making these more advanced tools required increased communication – this stimulated advances in mouth noises.


Fire had been discovered by 600,000 years ago, and by then our brain size had doubled. The discovery of fire affected our physical evolution – softer food allowed smaller teeth, making room for even larger brains and enabling speech. The tools and our bodies were interacting, with advances in technology being reflected in our physical being.

The tools enabled easier food acquisition, and larger, healthier populations. But whatever the tools, perhaps the most powerful and long-lasting change they brought about was that affecting the behavior of the communities using them. The wizardry of making these artifacts conferred power on the axemakers, and in turn, on those who could use the tools to do new things. So in a fundamental schism that would last until modern times, the gift of an axe favored those in a community who were good at handling the new tool and the change it could bring. Through the coming millennia, power would very often flow to this analytic type, who could turn the gifts to cut-and-control to his own advantage. It was as if the axe had generated a kind of artificial environment, in which those who were best at using technology to shape the world (and those around them) became leaders.

map of the Rift Valley in Africa

Environmental changes required further adaptations for our ancestors. 120,000 years ago, the Sahara dried up, and the climate of Africa became harsher. This stimulated movement from the ancient cradle of the Rift Valley, towards the north and east. By 95,000 years ago, very sophisticated tool-making kits existed in the Nile valley. By 90,000, we had reached the Middle East. Traveling at an estimated 200 miles per year, by 50,000 years ago we had traveled across Europe, and to New Guinea and Australia. Siberia was reached 25,000 years ago, and the far reaches of the America's by 15,000 years ago. The ‘modern’ tool kits allowed the small bands of that day – probably averaging 25 people per group, covering an area of 15 square miles – to rapidly adapt to all environments.

Europe of 20,000 years ago was in the midst of an Ice Age. Conditions required even more communication between groups, and new levels of cooperation between groups in order to survive. Round female-like totems, dubbed “Venus” figurines appeared about this time. These seem to have been identity tokens used by the various groups to show kinship to each other. The figurines have been found in Southern Europe and Western France to the Russian plain.

Isturitz Baton
These engraved batons from Isturitz, France represent
a five-month and a four-month lunar calendar.

Around this time another kind of artifact appeared. These magic objects are referred to by modern archeologists as “batons,” and they are made of carved bone or antler horn. These appear to be an early form of record keeping, our first external memory. Marks have been carved into the baton in sets, each set placed horizontally in a line. Their existence is evidence of the highly developed stage of their maker’s intelligence.

The earliest batons have been found in the Southern latitudes – France, Italy, and Spain – the areas from which the ice first receded. These batons show knowledge of the periodicity of nature, and could be used to predict climate by their wielders – the shamans. They could not be used by the uninitiated. Dating from 13,000 years ago, the French “La Marche” bone showed what appears to be a 7.5 month calendar, corresponding to the months of March through November (thaw to frost).

The batons indicate the ability to abstract and symbolize. They also reveal a highly developed capability to observe and record celestial phenomena. These devices enabled planning, and put power into the wielders hands. They were a new kind of gift. The symbols on them were visible, but were incomprehensible to all but a few. The group became dependent on this knowledge, and the people who could wield it.

Chapter 2: Token considerations

Man tilling a field with wooden plow and oxen

12,000 years ago the world population was roughly 5 million people. At this time the axemakers presented us with two gifts. And, as would be repeated throughout history, we had no choice but to accept them. These gifts were the gifts of agriculture and writing.

Evidence of ‘dry stick’ farming in Israel has been found dating from 15,000 years ago. Grinding stones and primitive sickles have been found. These enabled more efficient food cropping. This, in turn, led to more permanent homes, and a stronger tie to particular locations.

Grinding stone
Grinding stone

Our behavior and these locations became linked. Burial sites at this time began to show signs that ‘ordinary’ people were being given burials, and names. Until this time, this practice appears to have been restricted to the leaders or Shamans. Stronger group identities also were evolving.

The first settlements appear to have been among the Kebakans on the plains of Levant (Syria). 11,000 years ago there were maybe four families living there. By 9000 years ago, there were nearly 200 houses at Mureybit, in modern Syria.

The production of excess food, and the increase in efficiency in producing it enabled the creation of classes of people not directly involved in food production. Tool production, basket weaving, and other arts were being practiced on a much wider scale, by specialists. 7000 years ago, pressure either from population growth or a climate change giving less rainfall, moved farmers living near rivers to move from dry farming to irrigation techniques. This represented a breakthrough in thought, such that for the first time we realized that natural processes could be reproduced artificially. Nature could be subjected to ‘cut and control’ methodology, and society could be as well. Organized survival required levels of obedience, new constraints on behavior, and new layers of social authority. Now we lived in places, and our identity was tied to the area where we lived.

The food surplus stimulated another axemaker’s gift – writing. In the beginning, it was numbers, not words, however. The surplus meant food could be stored, traded, or used as payments for goods and services. This necessitated some form of record keeping. The first form of record keeping seems to have been invented 12,000 years ago in the Zagros Mountains. These were clay tokens representing different commodities in specific quantities. Their use spread throughout the Middle East from then until about 5400 years ago.

Clay Tokens with Envelope
Clay Tokens with Envelope,
Near East, ca. 3700-3200 BC

The tokens were carried in clay envelopes, which often carried the official seal of the local authority. The shapes of these tokens (a shape representing a particular commodity) standardized early. These were among the first kiln-fired objects. As agriculture, animal husbandry, and artisan’s output increased, the types of tokens proliferated. About 5000 BCE, in Syria or Iraq, the number of tokens inside began to be written on the outside of the clay envelope. This led, almost inevitably, to the elimination of the tokens; the tally on the envelope, combined with new pictographs depicting the commodity of interest, began doing the job formerly done by the tokens themselves. Increases in the complications of trade stimulated the need, and search for, arithmetical operations to simplify the transactions. This appears to have been first accomplished in the Mesopotamian city of Uruk, around 5000 BCE.

Map including Uruk
Uruk in modern context

Uruk appears to have been our first city. It was settled around 7000 years ago on the banks of the Euphrates. It grew after 3100 BCE to a population of about 20,000 people. This concentration of people in one place made them (and their food supply) vulnerable to external threat. The response to this vulnerability was a concentration of power in the leaders, and the development of a rigid hierarchy in the society. We decided that the rewards of city living outweighed the constraints on our behavior that were a result of the new structure.

This culture possessed the ox-drawn plow for farming; the wheel and sail for transportation; and the potter’s wheel for making storage containers. They also possessed kiln-fired bricks, metal weapons, and draft animals. From this point on, humans experienced an ever-accelerating pace of change, up to the current day. With these new gifts/tools dawned the realization that we could make large scale changes to the world around us.

The Wheel
The wheel

The power in this society was concentrated in the King, with much of that dependent on the few scribes who could record the transactions of trade. The merchants carried out the actual trade, soldiers ensured defense (and compliance), workers made the trade goods, and farmers supported the entire chain. The production of goods was made possible by the surplus of food; the results of all of these processes went towards the support of those at the top.

Then, in a development which would happen again and again throughout history, advances in technology forced these structures to adapt. Simplifications in the pictogram systems presented those in power with a choice – face social collapse, or allow larger segments of the population access to the new technologies of reading and writing. This diffusion of the axemakers knowledge allowed the existing bureaucracies to expand. This, in turn, allowed the federation of cities into states.

More layers of bureaucracy meant more division of labor, meant more complexity. More procedures had to be standardized, meaning more of it had to be written down. This led to these procedures becoming unalterable policies. This led, in Mesopotamia, to the invention of Law.

Cylinder seal impression
Ur-Nammu (seated) bestows governorship on
Ḫašḫamer, patesi (high priest) of Iškun-Sin
(cylinder seal impression, ca. 2100 BC).

In ancient hunter-gatherer society, the prime mechanism of social control was kin revenge. In India, China, and Egypt, this evolved into religious functions being the primary means of social control. In the Middle East, this was done by the position of the King. Concentration of this function in the person of the King also led to the idea of property, and to the first written laws. Ur-Nammu issued the first legal code in 4050 BCE in Nippur. This was related primarily to the establishment of standard weights and measures. These steps also led to a shift from communal ownership of property to private ownership.

Trade, and the resultant power, was facilitated by agriculture and writing. The existence of papyrus in Egypt made their writing more versatile than that of Mesopotamia. This facilitated the expanse of an even greater trade network. Writing was language specific, and thus contributed to the solidification of those languages. The alphabet was invented, in part to facilitate Canaanite/Egyptian trade. In Greece, the spread of the alphabet triggered the development of modern thought, and further increased the gulf between the haves and have-nots.

example of early writing
An example of Proto-Sinaitic script, one of
the earliest (if not the very first)
phonemic scripts

Even by this early date, axemaker gifts had already given us the ability to perform miracles. We had used them to emerge from the jungle, first to small, regularly fed agricultural settlements and then to large, well-ordered cities. There, in return for the security of protection, possessions, and food, we traded the ancient hunter-gatherer freedom of movement and the right to change our leaders, for royal dynasties that ruled by divine right and codified our behavior with the rule of law.

Concentrated and regimented in the cities, bound by rigid conformity, we were conveniently ready for the next great axemaker change. In return for the gift of the alphabet we had accepted, we would have to accept a new measure of conformity in the way we thought about thinking.

Pages 1234 TOP