A Brief History of Flint Knapping


Flint-knapping is a general term used to describe the act of shaping various silica based rocks into usable tools and art. It involves using hard objects such as rock, antler, bone, wood, and various other metals such as copper and iron to name a few to hit the stone and remove flakes of material. Stone tools have been recorded and collected at archeological sites that are dated to have been created approximately 2.6 million years ago. 1.76 million years ago is when archeologists believe that humans began actually knocking flakes off of rock and then creating smaller flakes off of the original large flake to thin down the material and create sharp edges.  Some of these tools were used for scraping hides, chopping down trees, knives, arrow heads, drills, etc.

The reason why stones such as flint/chert, obsidian, granite, and other silica based rocks were selected for tools is because the percentage of silica is high. This allows for the rocks to be broken in more predictable shards/flakes and thinned down, allowing for easier creation of a workable edge and deadly sharp tools. Obsidian tools are glass like with very sharp edges. Obsidian has  been shown to be sharper than steel in some circumstances. Though stone is functional, there are areas where stone tools fail in comparison to metal tools, but the main difference/issue is durability. Flint knapping has been used globally over time with many different cultures. Many created their own tool/weapon styles based on their region and creativity. I hope to describe where these tools were created and what types of rocks were used for knapping across the world and where you can find flint mines in the United States. I will describe the oldest known use of stone tools and the gradual expansion of craftmanship/tool design overtime. Lastly, I will glance over how and why stone tools were eventually replaced.

1. Where Flint is Found

Flint, like many materials is abundant in certain regions of the world. In others there may be little to no knappable rocks due to the mineral composition and natural history of the region. For there to be flint deposits there must be limestone. Robert Turner, author of the book Flint Knapping – A Guide To Making Your Own Stone Age Toolkit, describes trends in flint deposits when he writes, “The chalk as it formed had a top layer some 8m to 9m thick of detritus (material of rotting corpses of sea creatures and decaying seaweed). This created hydrogen sulfide that has the ability to have an ion exchange with silicon making silicon dioxide. Though this layer filtrated SiO2, silicon dioxide, settled into cavities and water table levels to become, over time, the flint layers we see today” (Turner, p.130). This indicates that the creation of flint is dependent on areas of land being covered in either lakes or ocean long ago and then receding. This is why flint is found in areas such as Ohio, Kansas, Missouri, Northern Oklahoma, Texas, etc. as all of these regions were once covered by ocean. Basically, any place you can find native limestone, there are probably flint deposits near you.

Because of the way that flint is created/formed it should be noted that the best, most pure flint is found deeper in the rock table, the surface flint is typically not as “filtered” (Turner, p.130) and contains greater impurities such as crystal pockets and fossils. These impurities can prevent flakes from running across the piece and reduce its overall workability, creating fractures that can either inhibit the further removal of flakes, or weaken the piece and make it prone to snapping due to internal fractures.

A few of the first points I have made. Mostly made from glass, but one is made from local flint 

2. The Oldest Known Use of Stone Tools (Early Stone Age)

As I mentioned previously, humans have been using stone tools for millions of years. The oldest recorded evidence of this is an African site referred to as the Oldowan tool kit which has been dated to originate approximately 2.6 million years ago. The Smithsonian Human Origins Initiative website (linked above) goes into detail about the tool kit. The tool kit consisted of at least a few hammer stones (rocks used to break other rocks) with evidence of use on the rocks, stone cores that have flakes removed along one or more edges and lastly, there is evidence of stone flakes removed from the cores that were used as cutting edges along with waste pieces from chipping. These initial stone tools were crude and not like the stone pieces we see with more recent stone tools/arrowheads that you may find across North America. By about 1.6 million years ago is when humans began using large flake and removing smaller flakes from the large flake. This allowed for thinner edges and more intricate work.

3. Eurasian Stone Tools (Middle Stone Age)

Within the last 400,000 and 250,000 years humans entered a newer level. Between these time periods you begin to see slow, but noticeable changes in craftsmanship and the way in which tools were created. The increased craftsmanship lead way to the creation of more advance and smaller tools to allow for smaller flakes to be removed rather than large ones. Between 300,000 and 200,000 years ago is when you begin to see the methodology of stone flakers in toolkits become abundant in some parts of Africa, Europe, and Asia. In the Middle Stone Period (approximately 50,000 to 30,000 years ago) do you start to see more intricate designs and tools that were typically hafted to things such as spears, shafts, and other materials depending on intended function. Stone awls, knives, and scrapers also begin appearing during this period.

4. Native American Stone Tools in America (Late Stone Age)

Around 13,000 years ago (though some argue 30,000 years ago or earlier) is when archeologists believe that humans began crossing into North America using a newly emerged land bridge caused by the reduced sea level during the ice age as the water was accumulating in glaciers. The first notable group of people that crossed into North America are referred to as the ancestors of the Clovis people. Here you begin to see more culturally tied designs of tools and various degrees and methods of reducing points. Native Americans are/were one of the last peoples to use stone tools before moving to other forms of tool creation. Here we continue to see the trend that as people kept entering the land bridge and expanding across the Americas, you begin to see unique styles and culturally tied designs/tools based on whatever purposes they saw fit and the materials that they had available.

There is evidence that material was traded across the continent as you tend to find materials and tools that don’t seem to belong based on the local geology. This could have introduced various cultures to new techniques and designs. I encourage everyone reading to look up arrowhead designs in North America and the cultures/regions they originate from. The triangular piece I found is shown on the homepage is referred to as plains triangular. It is approximately 1000 years old give or take and has been linked to a nomadic bison hunting tribe. I speculate how true this identification is based on the range they have allocated for the points, but you never know what was traded and where someone really was in an age that had no true boundaries, especially when they followed the paths of the bison.  

5. How Stone Tools Were Replaced

As predicted, all good things must end. As observed in Eurasia, stone tools began being outcompeted during the copper age at about 5,000 BCE. Copper is tougher and more malleable. It is able to be sharpened and re-bent if damaged or remolded into its original shape. Overall, it most likely saved time and energy as one didn’t have to create a greater surplus of tools with the expectation that most would break. In places within Africa copper tools were seen as early as 2000 BCE. In North America it is a bit more interesting. There is evidence that various tribes began using copper tools about the same time that copper was being used in Eurasia, though something strange occurred.

 In Michelle Bebber, et, al.’s nature article The exceptional abandonment of metal tools by North American hunter-gatherers, 3000 B.P. the authors go on to discuss this strange occurrence regarding some Native American people’s use of metal tools when they state,” Cases where metal tools were indigenously innovated and used, but did not ultimately predominate or replace stone tools, are rare. Thus, the abandonment of Old Copper Culture utilitarian tools facilitates the examination of an exceptional situation in human prehistory: how and why metal tools were selected against. Binford found this situation particularly “interesting” because of the general assumption that in terms of “absolute efficiency” copper tools were superior to their functional equivalents in stone, possessing both greater durability as well as superiority in accomplishing cutting and piercing tasks. However, acknowledging that the manufacture of copper tools would have required greater energy expenditure than stone tools, maintained that copper tools would have still been more efficient in terms of net energy expenditure. This is because copper tools were “probably more durable and could have been utilized for a longer period of time”. Thus, despite the greater energy required to produce a copper tool relative to a stone one, a copper tool’s durability would have conserved energy in task performance”. The authors are suggesting that though some Great Lake societies were using copper tools relatively early. Their technological advancement regressed as their populations increased as did the complexity of their society. The amount of energy required to continue creating copper tools was observed to be higher than that of stone tools, possibly causing a shift to revert back to the stone tools, though in the long run it would have been significantly more energy efficient to continue with copper.

Throughout various metal ages there has always been continuous use of stone tools, but it is typical that once metallurgy is discovered the stone tools begin to become replaced or are observed in lesser numbers. Once iron begins to be used in Europe stone tools really begin to die out. Once the Europeans began to enter North America and trade with various native groups you also begin to see this trend, especially once European settlement/expansion begins.


Given the amount of metal tools we have access to on a daily basis and the substantial efficiency that it brings; it is hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that humans have used nothing more than stone tools longer than any other type of metal tool. After working with stone myself, I can definitely see how crude tools can be used from small to large flakes for cutting and shaving wood/meat as the flakes are razor sharp (three of my fingers currently have a few cuts along some joints from making contact with shards while trying to create an arrowhead from a chunk of flint). I find it interesting that as humans set out to explore the world, they brought the tools with them. 

I wonder how much flint knapping knowledge and skills in the North American archeological record is based upon or copied from that seen in Europe as there seems to be some link. After working with stone myself, I understand why they eventually shifted to metal tools. Even though stone is sharper than steel at fine edges, it is not nearly as strong and is too brittle to be used for anything which needs high amounts of force repeatedly applied to the edge. Flint is a very hard rock prior to being thinned down. Working it into a complex shape has a learning curve as you are relying on your own muscles and coordination to spot platforms and hit them properly without breaking the piece. I appreciate the amount of patience and observation it takes to create a point or tool. It makes me have greater gratitude for the metal tools we have today and the amount of sweat and time they save me.

A video thumbnail of a side-notched arrowhead by a flint knapping youtuber I watch named Jack Crafty

Works Cited

Bebber, Michelle R., et al. “The Exceptional Abandonment of Metal Tools by North American Hunter-Gatherers, 3000 B.P.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 8 Apr. 2019, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-42185-y.

“Early Stone Age Tools.” The Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program, The Smithsonian , 29 June 2022, https://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/stone-tools/early-stone-age-tools.  

Turner, Robert. “UK Flint Mines and USA Flint Mines.” Flint Knapping: A Guide to Making Your Own Stone Age Toolkit, The History Press, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2013, p. 130.

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