Virtual Symposia

Imitation, Memory and Cultural Changes: Probing the Meme Hypothesis

Is a Handaxe a Meme

Michael Chazan


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If the meme is to be conceived of as analogous to the gene then it must be a unitary phenomenon whether the ‘phenotypic’ expression is a handaxe or a poem. This paper will consider whether identifying handaxes with memes offers a conceptual basis for empirical research. This paper extends the proposal made by McNabb, Binyon, and Hazelwood (2004), based on an analysis of the form of South African Acheulian handaxes, that handaxes were individualized memic constructs. The nature of handaxe manufacture and the variability of handaxe form will be presented to raise the question of what exactly it means to identify this artifact type as a meme. This discussion highlights the complexity of the interaction between memory and action in the production of artifacts. The question that emerges from this discussion is whether the nature of memory involved in handaxe production is of the same kind as the memory involved in other activities that have been linked with the concept of the meme. This question is particularly interesting because the handaxe is a technological phenomenon which lasted for over 1 million years and was produced by a pre-modern hominin (Homo erectus).


McNabb, J,, F. Binyon, and L. Hazelwood. 2004. The Large Cutting Tools from the South African Acheulean and the Question of Social Traditions. Current Anthropology 45(5): 653-677.

Michael Chazan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, and President of the Toronto Semiotic Circle (2007-2008). He specializes in Paleolithic archaeology and lithic analysis, a domain in which he published numerous articles. He conducts fieldwork in France, Israel, and Jordan. He is the author of World Prehistory and Archaeology: Pathways through Time (2007).