History


Flint Knapping: Stone Age Technology that Built the First Nations

flint knapping history
Source: Shutterstock

For thousands of years, the Native American people of North America relied on stone arrowheads and project points as their weapons of choice for warfare and hunting.

An expertly tooled stone point could be the difference between life and death, feasting and starvation. An important item to the Indigenous people of the American West, the humble arrowhead – and the skilled craftsmen who made them – often doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.

Oftentimes, the only thing standing between a Native American hunter and a charging bear or bison was a small rock – and knapping techniques handed down since the Stone Age. This took both bravery and confidence in the adroit flint knapper’s ability.

What is Flint Knapping?

Good arrowheads are not found; they are formed.

The stone is carefully and precisely chipped and shaped through a process called knapping, or flint knapping. Knapping is different than carving or etching: it is the deliberate removal of thin layers in the stone in specific sequence in order to shape and sharpen the stone into a usable tool.

When Did Flint Knapping Start?

Flint knapping is a tool-making technique that dates back to the Stone Age, when our early human ancestors first began to make their own tools. According to archaeological findings, the oldest tools that have been discovered were made from rock and stone.

Some sources suggest human ancestors began knapping stones millions of years ago, while the oldest known stone points date back more than 60,000 years. In North America, some unearthed spearheads are thought to be more than 15,000 years old.

Some knapped stones, like arrowheads, are easy to discern from unaltered rocks, but others may be more challenging to find. There are, however, plenty of knapped stone artifacts that have been unearthed. Until various cultures learned metallurgy – or in cultures that never discovered metalworking methods – knapping was the most common means of crafting tools and weapons.

The ins and outs of knapping have been passed down from generation to generation from prehistoric times, yet the results remain timeless.

flint knapping

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What Stones Were Used?

Not every stone lends itself to knapping. As the name suggests, flint was one of the most commonly knapped stones, but it wasn’t the only one. Obsidian was also used. So was quartz, jasper, chert, and chalcedony.

These are silica-rich, fine-grained rocks that are dense and hard. For weapons and tools, a durable stone was needed that wouldn’t snap in two in the middle of a hunt or battle. As hard as these rocks are, they have a unique characteristic. They are able to be fractured in a rounded conchoidal, or clamshell, pattern. Other types of rocks, when struck with a hard object, will break in a linear fashion while others crack in unpredictable and jagged chips.

The predictable nature of flint, obsidian, and other such rocks make these stones especially suited for toolmaking, as ancient humans discovered. The discovery most likely came from observing how various stones broke apart during natural events, like landslides and earthquakes, as well as from experimenting by hitting the rocks with other stones. The precise manner in which flint and obsidian broke gave early humans control over the rocks and how they could be shaped.

flint knapping arrowhead
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, the technique of flint knapping is universal. It was developed independently by numerous cultures around the world. Archaeologists agree that knapping was not a skill developed by just one culture and then spread to others.

Civilizations that had no contact with other groups had flint knapping technology. Rather, it seems, knapping was a skill various cultures learned on their own and applied to tool- and weapon-making. Knapping the flakes off leaves the stone thin and sharp – sharp enough to cut through animal hide, pierce human skin, cut wood, and dig in the ground.

For the Indigenous people of North America, stone tools represented the pinnacle of advancement. The tools and weapons they were able to make were so effective that there was no need for metalworking, aside from ornamental gold and silver objects. Metallurgy – smelting copper, tin, and other metals – was developed by some Native American groups, but it was not as advanced or widespread as metalworking was in Europe.

What Tools Were Needed for Knapping?

Expert flint knappers relied on either hard hammers or soft hammers to shape the stone. A hard hammer was another rock, but a harder one than the flint. Granite, basalt, quartz, or other types of metamorphic or igneous rocks were preferred because they transferred the energy of the blow to the flint. Hard hammers were used in the first stages of the knapping process to give the flint its rough shape by removing larger flakes.

For the fine, delicate steps, knappers turned to another tool. Soft hammers, as the name implies, were made from materials other than rock. Bone, antlers, and some hard woods were fashioned into soft hammers.

flint knapping demonstration
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Unlike the dense hard hammers, when the flint is struck with a soft hammer, less of the energy from the blow is focused onto the flint because it is absorbed by the organic material. This gave the knapper more control over the amount of flint that was removed, as well as the size and shape of the flakes.

Depending on the weapon or tool being made, the knapper may need to smooth a sharp edge down before removing a flake, so too large a piece is not chipped off. The knapper would use another stone, either limestone or sandstone, as a tool to dull the edge or smooth the flint, in much the same way that a woodworker used sandpaper.

Common Knapping Techniques

The techniques used for flint knapping varied depending on the tool or weapon being made, the culture making the item, the individual knapper’s style, and the raw material being used.

The process begins with finding a suitable rock to knap. The unaltered stone is called a core. The knapper must remove enough material to turn the core into a flatter object that is shaped to resemble the final product.

To accomplish this, the craftsman strikes the edge of the core with a hard hammer to remove enough of the original rock to allow for shaping. It requires more skill than simply pounding on the rock.

The knapper must be able to find the right spots to strike with the hard hammer to chip off the flakes. If they hit the core stone on the wrong spot or at the wrong angle, they would not be able to chip off a flake and the core would remain unaltered.

If you envision an arrowhead or a hatchet head, you can tell they’re much flatter than a round stone, meaning quite a bit of raw material must be removed from the stone. The knapper held the core in one hand and the hard hammer in the other, carefully turning the core to strike the right sides and angles.

flint knapped arrowheads
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When the rough shape of the final item was clear, the knapper switched to a soft hammer and used an indirect percussion flaking to refine and sculpt the piece. By applying pressure to the chipped edge of the piece, the knapper could flake off small pieces of stone, in thin, clamshell-shaped layers. Each strike on the core reduced it in size to make it ideal for use as a knife, arrowhead, hatchet, or digging tool.

Many ancient civilizations discovered that heating the stone made it easier for knapping. By heating the stone gradually over a hot fire until the stone was thoroughly heated throughout. The craftsmen started by building a large, hot fire over a bed of sand. When the fire burned down, the hot coals and super-heated sand remained.

The core stones were buried in this hot sand until the heat changed the texture, making the surface smoother. The high temperature changed the makeup of the stone, making it less grainy and easier to chip off smaller, thinner, sharper flakes to make more efficient tools and weapons.

The Trade of Arrowheads

Arrowheads were a valuable commodity for Native American cultures. Because of this, good, quality arrowheads were popular trade items. Modern archaeologists can trace the origins of many arrowheads that have been recovered in archaeology digs.

Working with geologists, researchers can examine the chemical composition of rocks used to make the arrowheads and compare them to the rocks and stones in various geographical locations. Doing so, researchers made some startling discoveries.

Arrowheads made from flint quarried from the Knife River in North Dakota, for example, have been found in Ohio, Texas, and Ontario. Other artifacts, made from obsidian taken from Yellowstone National Park’s Obsidian Cliff, were unearthed in the Ohio River Valley, as well as Washington State, the Colorado-New Mexico border, and parts of Canada. The findings proved that vibrant trade networks flourished between the different tribes of North America.

The First Industrial Disease

Evidence shows that ancient flint knappers often suffered from the same disease: silicosis. A disease of the lungs, silicosis is caused from breathing in dust particles that contain silica over a prolonged period of time. The silica collects in the lungs, scarring the organs and blocking the breathing passages.

Silicosis patients suffer from persistent coughing, excess phlegm, breathing difficulties, chest pain, and blue lips. The disease results in an early death for those inflicted with the condition. Archaeologists have found signs of silicosis in clusters of remains, leading them to conclude that these individuals worked as long-term flint knappers.

They have even referred to silicosis as the first industrial disease in the world. Silicosis is still problematic today. Sandblasters, miners, glass manufacturers, and masonry workers are susceptible to silicosis. Modern employees working with silica wear respirators to protect their lungs from the silica dust, as well as protective eyewear. They also work in well-ventilated workspaces to protect them from silicosis.

Knapping: More Than Just Arrowheads

The art of shaping stones via knapping was applied to much more than just arrowheads. Agricultural tools, spearheads, knives, ax heads, and flintlocks were crafted using knapping techniques.

Pistols, rifles, and muskets from the beginning of the 17th century through the mid-19th century used flintlock mechanisms. In these weapons, a metal hammer strikes a piece of flint to create a spark that ignites the gunpowder, thus firing the gun.

flint knapper
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although these were modern weapons at the time, they relied on the ancient art of flint knapping to produce the small pieces of flint for the guns. A booming industry dedicated to producing flint for flintlock weapons sprang up in Europe, particularly in England.

Arrowheads as Artifacts

Native American arrowheads are sought-after artifacts by archaeologists and collectors. They have been found in nearly every part of North America. Since each arrowhead is unique, with features and nuances characteristic of the individual knapper, museums and collectors always want to add more arrowheads to their displays.

Hunting for arrowheads is a pastime that anyone can participate in, not just trained archaeologists. Before you head out into the woods looking for ancient arrowheads, familiarize yourself with the laws in your area regarding finding and removing artifacts.

Also, make sure that you have permission from landowners to look for arrowheads on private land. Looking for artifacts on public land gets a lot trickier. If you are searching on public land, like a state or national park, first talk to a park ranger to find out the laws in that area.

You may be told you cannot hunt for arrowheads at all, or you may have to turn over any artifacts you find to the park. Hunting for arrowheads is a fun and rewarding hobby, but you need to make sure that you stay within the law.

Arrowheads as a Form of Art

Whether you find your own arrowheads or admire them in a museum exhibit, it’s easy to appreciate the skill and craftsmanship that went into making each arrowhead. From a simple, unassuming rock, expert flint knappers since ancient times were able to create tools to advance their culture, as well as the weapons they needed to fight wars and hunt large game animals.

Native Americans were reliant on the ability of their knappers to produce knives, hatchets, and scrappers. Using techniques that have been largely unchanged since the Stone Age, they created the tools and weapons to build great civilizations.


Read more about Native American stories, people and places:

Although Karen lives in the Midwest, she likes to put the emphasis on the "west." A freelance writer who specializes in American history, Karen has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Central Michigan University and a master's degree in English from Indiana University. A wannabe world traveler, Karen spends her days writing and her nights researching cheap flights to far-off places.

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