Seeing into the ‘Stone Age’: The stone tools of early man

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Bob Markham (UK)

In the early part of his evolution, man made great use of rock and stone to assist him in his activities. The term ‘Stone Age’ has been given to the period of time during which stone was the main material used for the manufacture of functional tools for daily life. It is generally thought to have commenced about 3.3Ma and was the time when man firmly established his position on earth as a ‘tool-using’ mammal. However, it should be remembered that stone was not the only material used for this purpose. More perishable materials, such as wood, reeds, bone and antler, were also used, but very few of these materials have survived to be found today (but see the box: Non-stone tools).

Non-stone tools
A notable exception to the general rule that non-stone tools have not been preserved is the Palaeolithic wooden spear shaft that was recovered in 1911 from a site in Clacton in Essex. At 400,000 years old, the yew-wood spear is the oldest, wooden artefact that is known to have been found in the UK (see

A number of wooden spears dating from 380,000 to 400,000 years ago were also recovered between 1994 and 1998 from an open-cast coal mine in Germany (see Other items are found from time to time from peat-bog conditions, which offer the most favourable medium for the preservation of such material.

The stones used to make tools

Being a non-perishable material, stone has survived the ravages of time and is therefore the main material from which much of our current knowledge about the history of man has been obtained. The technological development of mankind is known to have proceeded at different rates in different parts of the world, one particular example of this being when early man in Europe were using stone tools at a time when bronze was the material being worked in Egypt and Mesopotamia. A more recent example is displayed by the Aborigines and other native Australian populations of today, who use stone tools that are hard to distinguish from artefacts from European Palaeolithic times.

The ‘Stone Age’ element of our history is usually sub-divided into three periods (each with its own tool culture), the earliest of which is known as the ‘Palaeolithic’ period, otherwise known as the ‘Old Stone Age’. This era began about 3.3Ma when stone tools were first used by an early species of human (Australopithecus afarensis). Starting about 20,000 years ago the ‘Mesolithic’ era (the ‘Middle Stone Age’) followed the Palaeolithic period and then, commencing about 10,200 years ago, the Neolithic period (‘New Stone Age’) became the most recent of the three sub-divisions. About 3,500 years ago, the Neolithic period ended and was replaced by the ‘Bronze Age’, this being the time when man discovered the use of metals. However, as will be seen, man has used rock and stone throughout his history.

Only some types of stone are suitable for use in the making of tools and, consequently, early man had to ‘hunt’ for the correct types of stone to use. It was necessary to know what type of stone he was looking for and this requirement can be taken as a sign of man’s evolving intelligence. The most familiar of the stone types in question is flint (Fig. 1), which is a hard sedimentary cryptocrystalline form of the mineral quartz and is a stone that fractures easily and cleanly, producing sharp edges that are capable of cutting flesh (Fig. 2). It can even fracture predictably.

Fig 1. Flint Achulean culture hand axe recovered from the historic site at Swanscombe, Kent in 1906.
Fig 2
Fig 2. A flake of flint showing the sharp edges and points that can be produced when fracturing a flint nodule.

The incisive property of flint was recognised by early man, who made practical use of that property primarily for the acquisition and preparation of food supplies. Flint occurs naturally in sedimentary rocks, including chalks and limestones, and can exist as individual nodules of varying size, large irregular masses and even as sheet deposits, the latter providing welcome mining opportunities in Neolithic times (for example, at Grimes Graves in Norfolk).

Through time, other stone types have been used to make tool artefacts, but not all of these have the same properties as flint. Another silica-rich cryptocrystalline sedimentary stone type that was often used, particularly in the southwest of the UK, is chert (Fig. 3). Although not quite the same as flint in mineralogical terms, chert can be fashioned in a similar manner and has consequently been used in the production of functional tools.
A mineral of igneous origin known to have been used for making tools is obsidian, (see Fig 4). Commonly called ‘volcanic glass’, it is a hard, glassy mineral which fracture easily yielding very sharp edges. This property was noticed by early man, who put it to productive use to make cutting and piercing tools. In modern times, it has even been used experimentally to manufacture surgical scalpel blades.

Fig 3
Fig 3. A 350,000-year-old ‘cleaver’ implement made from chert, a common stone type found in the southwest of the UK. This item was probably made by Homo heidelbergensis and was recently recovered from deposits in the River Axe valley on the Devon/Dorset border.
Fig 4. A selection of small Mesolithic tools made from Obsidian, the igneous mineral known colloquially as ‘volcanic glass’.

In the North African desert regions of Libya and Egypt, a large quantity of a natural silica glass, known as ‘Libyan desert glass’, can be found. About 26Ma, a meteor fell causing a massive fireball that generated a tremendous amount of heat (at least 1,600oC). Desert sand was blasted into the atmosphere, melting in the heat and then raining back down to earth again as liquid glass, finally solidifying to form the glass fragments that can be found today. The functional qualities of this material became known to prehistoric man about 10,000 years ago and it was successfully used to manufacture tools (Fig. 5).

Fig 5. Four Neolithic microlith implements made from the North African mineral known as ‘Libyan desert glass’.

The Stone Age was followed by the Bronze Age, which saw man’s discovery of metals, these proving to be a dramatic aid to daily life. Tin was mined as an ore (cassiterite) and smelted before being added to molten copper to make the alloy. The ‘Iron Age’ then followed, but it should be appreciated that stone tools were still being used for many purposes during both these periods of time (although their quality noticeably deteriorated).

Types of tool

As Homo evolved, his mental capacity increased such that his manufacture of tools was accompanied by increasing levels of sophistication. Stone tools can be grouped into distinctive patterns of manufacture, each pattern showing an increased level of sophistication over its predecessor. These patterns are termed ‘cultures’ (or ‘industries’) and the culture to which a stone tool can be attributed is one of the indicators that has been used in the past to help identify the species of hominid responsible for its manufacture, an important step in tracking the evolution of man.

Initially, early man made use of sharp edges that can occur on naturally broken pieces of stone and, recognising the value of these artefacts, put them to effective use. However, he then began to create his own sharp-edged fragments through the simple act of banging two stones together in the right manner to produce the desired articles. As time passed, the manufacturing technique was increasingly refined and tools of greater sophistication began to appear.

Fig 6
Fig. 6. Seen and acquired at an ERMS annual show, this Palaeolithic Acheulean culture hand axe was found at Lymington in Hampshire, in deposits of the ancient River Solent.

Before looking at the ways in which tools can be classified according to their method of manufacture, it may first be helpful to look at some of the different types that were actually produced. Early types may be grouped as ‘choppers’ or ‘cleavers’, ‘cutters’, ‘scrapers’ and ‘borers’, each type being fairly self-explanatory in function.

Choppers and cleavers were the earliest tool types to have been used and were larger pieces of stone with functional edges that could be found either as natural products or physically made by breaking big stones into smaller pieces. Such pieces of stone will usually have at least one sharper edge that would serve as a functional edge, which was produced either when the stone was broken or by the later careful removal of small stone fragments (retouching).

The opposing edge will usually have a thicker profile, this providing a suitable hand grip with which the item could be held. The tool would be used by swinging it in a chopping motion using the functional edge to impact a target item, hopefully with the desired result. A chopper (Fig. 7) would usually produce rougher, more irregular incisions in the target, while a cleaver (Fig. 8) would produce cleaner, more symmetrical cuts.

Fig 7
Fig. 7. A large, early Lower Palaeolithic ‘chopper’ found at the base of coastal cliffs on the beach at Overstrand, Norfolk in the UK, in 2010.
Fig 8
Fig.8. A Lower Palaeolithic ‘cleaver’ recently found in Solent River gravel deposits, Lymington, Hampshire in the UK.

Cutters and scrapers appeared a little later in time and were smaller and more refined, usually being made from flakes of stone that had originally been removed from a central stone ‘core’. Flakes of stone with sharp edges were used either to cut through suitable materials (for example, the preparation of meat for consumption) or to scrape unwanted material away from a substrate to produce a more functional or desirable item (for example, preparation of an animal hide for clothing). Scrapers with one or both sides refined for use in this way are known as ‘side scrapers’ (Fig. 9), while those in which the end has been prepared for such use are termed ‘end scrapers’ (Fig. 10). Small, roughly circular stones with all edges suitably refined are referred to as ‘discoidal’ scrapers (Fig. 11).

There is no particular shape that would identify a scraper, but a tool of this type will always incorporate at least one refined scraping edge in its final form. However, tools would often be made to serve more than just one particular purpose with the physical features of each intended purpose being combined in the one tool. Unsurprisingly these tools are termed ‘combination tools’.

Fig 9
Fig 9. ‘Side scraper’ in which one side edge has been prepared and undoubtedly used for scraping activities.
Fig 10
Fig. 10. Mesolithic ‘end scraper’. One end of this blade has been prepared and used for scraping activities. Found during the 1950s in ploughed fields, near Avebury in Wiltshire (just north of Stonehenge).

Borers were probably the last of the above tool types to appear. They were usually stones to which there is an extension of some form terminating in an incisive point that would enable its use for ‘boring’ or ‘grinding’ activities (Fig. 12). Part of the stone would be left unaltered to allow it to be held in the hand, while the extension to the stone is suitably sharpened for penetrating or piercing.

Fig 12
Fig 12. Mesolithic ‘borer’ recovered from Hengistbury Head, Dorset.

As needs developed, different tools were made to meet those needs and a great variety of tools evolved. Stone ‘blade’ tools (Fig. 13) made their appearance in Upper Palaeolithic times and production of these items appears to be concentrated in that period. Blades are greater in length than in width, having approximately parallel sides and were usually struck directly from a stone core.

Fig 13
Fig 13. Upper Palaeolithic dual combination side/end scraper blade recovered from Portland Bill, Dorset.

Some important tool types appeared in Upper Palaeolithic times that were created based on blade technology, including backed knives, end scrapers and burins. A burin (Fig. 14) is a small chisel-like implement that has a point or small functional edge set at right angles to the main blade axis. A ‘backed’ knife is a sharp edged blade on which the edge opposing the functional edge remains blunt to permit the safe application of pressure during use (Fig. 15). Blades could be ‘denticulated’ to give them a serrated saw tooth-like appearance (Fig. 16) or they could be ‘shouldered’ to create a thinner stem (tang), which could be used for attachment to a shaft or handle. Shouldering is the creation of a step-like structure along the length of a shaft, which would provide a surface against which pressure could be applied and then transmitted along the axis of the shaft. Such a technique was particularly used in the making of spear-heads and arrow-heads (Fig. 28).

Fig 14
Fig 14. Mesolithic dihedral burin on a stone blade.
Fig 15
Fig. 15. Mesolithic ‘backed knife’ made from a stone blade.
Mahogany Obsidian tanged arrowhead
Fig 16. Neolithic ‘mahogany obsidian’ arrowhead. Note the ‘denticulated’ blade edges.

A feature that could be created at any stage in the manufacture of stone implements was produced by a technique known as ‘notching’. This was the creation of a distinct circular notch or notches on the edge of a stone implement. Notching was employed in the making of both flake and blade tools, and usually featured in the making of tools that were utilised for special purposes (Fig. 17). One such use in Neolithic times was for the stripping and straightening of arrow shafts.

Fig 17
Fig 17. Neolithic ‘notched’ flake recovered from Caistor St. Edmund, Norfolk, in 2016. Used for cleaning/preparing/straightening arrow shafts (with 5p coin for scale).

Generally, the size of tools reduced as man’s skills in manufacture improved, with heavier crude ‘core’ tools making way for smaller, lighter more refined ‘flake’ tools. Finished items became smaller and smaller in size, culminating in the creation of ‘microliths’. Microliths, as their name suggests, are ‘small stones’. They are an Upper Palaeolithic blade technology that was developed from the ‘backed blades’ of the Magdalenian culture (see below). They are tools of a small size (Fig. 18), perhaps 1 or 2cm in length and 3mm wide, and were often used for making composite tools, perhaps appearing in pairs as barbs that terminate a wooden shaft or hafted in rows along a length of wood to form a cutting or sawing edge.

Fig 18
Fig 18. Selection of Magdalenian culture microlith implements (with 1p coin for scale). ‘Notched’ blades are shown in the upper row (right end), centre row (centre specimen) and lower row (right end).

The development of stone tools over time

The first tools used by man were probably unfashioned stones picked up at random or chosen for a convenient or helpful natural shape. Man later learned to shape the stones himself, although the first attempts at such activity were likely to be indistinguishable from naturally broken stones.

The stone tools that were made by Homo habilis are crude elementary tool attributed to what is referred to as the ‘Oldowan’ culture, the earliest of the Palaeolithic tool cultures (also often referred to as ‘Pebble tools’; Fig. 19). Oldowan tools consist of larger stones or large flakes of stone produced by striking two suitable stones together causing them to fracture. Sharp edges produced in this way may arise from the striking activity itself or result from refinement procedures to produce sharper, more functional edges ready for use (that is, retouching).

Fig. 19. Lower Palaeolithic Oldowan culture chopper (pebble tool) recovered from a river estuary in Hampshire.

A second Lower Palaeolithic culture attributable particularly to Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis is known as the ‘Clactonian’ culture (Fig. 20). Dating from around 400,000 years ago until 200,000 years ago, the culture is named after Clacton on the Essex coast in the southeast of the UK. It was at this particular site that tools of this culture were first noted and the site therefore became known as the ‘Type site’. Between 1.7Ma and 100,000 years ago, and attributable to the same species, a distinctive, more refined culture, termed the ‘Acheulian’ culture (Figs. 1, 6 and 21) made its appearance, this culture being named after the type-site of St Acheul in France, where tools of this type were first found. The classic teardrop shaped ‘hand axe’ is a well-known tool type that is characteristic of this culture.

Fig 20. Lower Palaeolithic Clactonian culture ‘striker stone’ recovered from the Type-site in Believed to have been made by Homo heidelbergensis.
Fig 21. Lower Palaeolithic Achulean culture bifacial cordate hand axe recovered from a classic site at Botany Pit, Purfleet in Essex.

Characteristic of Middle Palaeolithic times is the more sophisticated, more refined and distinctive tool culture that was created by Neanderthal man (Homo neanderthalensis). Named the ‘Mousterian’ culture (Fig. 22), it lasted from 700,000 until about 35 to 40,000 years ago.

Fig 22. Middle Palaeolithic Mousterian (Neanderthal) culture ‘Cordiform’ bifacial hand axe recovered from a well-known Neanderthal site in France.

Homo sapiens (modern man) was responsible for the creation of several tool cultures during the Upper Palaeolithic period. Each culture displays advances over its predecessor in the sophistication of its finish. In order of chronological appearance, these are: the ‘Chatelperronian’ (41 to 39,000 years ago); the ‘Aurignacian’ (39 to 29,000 years ago); the ‘Gravettian’(29 to 22,000 years ago; Figs. 24 and 27); the ‘Solutrean’ (22 to 17,000 years ago; Figs. 23 and 26); the ‘Magdalenian’ (17 to 12,000 years ago; Fig. 18); and the ‘Azilian’ (commencing 12,000 years ago). An additional, specifically British tool industry, named the ‘Creswellian’ culture, has also now been recognised by the British archaeologist Dorothy Garrod. Dating from around 13,000 years ago, it survived until about 11,800 years ago.

Possibly arising from the Mousterian culture, the ‘Chatellperronian’ is the earliest of the Upper Palaeolithic tool cultures. This culture seems to have evolved from the French Mousterian tradition and the only diagnostic fossils that can definitely be associated with this culture are those of Neanderthals. However, fossils associated with the Aurignacian tradition that followed are those of modern humans. The Aurignacian culture is found over most of Europe and was first recognised with the ‘Cro-Magnon’ discovery (early modern man) in 1868 in France. However, there is a possibility that it could be attributable to the Neanderthals.

The ‘Gravettian’ culture was prevalent before the last ice age, dating from between 28,000 to 22,000 years ago. It was succeeded by the Solutrean culture, a fairly advanced tool-making industry that was in existence between 22,000 and 17,000 years ago, employing techniques in manufacture not seen before. The world’s first recognisable needles may be placed within this culture. The Magdalenian culture spanned the period between 18,000 and 10,000 years ago when the last ice age finished. This culture is characterised by blade industries and also marked the appearance of ‘microlith’ technology (Fig. 18). Mobile dwelling facilities were used by the Magdalenian people and they were not restricted to living in cave sites. Yet another culture was the ‘Azilian’ culture, which dates from about 10,000 years ago and includes several diagnostic artefacts including decorated pebbles.

The final culture to consider is the British industry known as the ‘Creswellian’ culture. It was named following the study of a particular tool culture found at Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, at one time probably the richest Palaeolithic site in Britain. The tools resembled those known from other British sites including Kent’s Cavern in Devon and Robin Hood’s Cave in the Creswell Caves of Derbyshire (where tools of this type were first found). They all exhibited similar features that led to the naming of an independent culture – the ‘Creswellian’ culture.

The Mesolithic period followed on from the Upper Palaeolithic cultures. One of the defining features of the Mesolithic was a change in the types of tools being used, these now being utilized for fishing and for the cultivation and gathering of plants as well as for hunting. Stone tools became smaller and small stone blades became common. Tools used in this period show that the earlier technologies of ice age human predecessors remained in use while the quality of tools, like scrapers, borers, knives and burins (still made from flint), showed noticeable improvements in the quality of their finish. Tiny stone ‘points’ became abundant, with microliths and similar implements providing the sharp points needed for use in spearheads (Fig. 26).

Microliths and other items in the form of retouched bladelets (Fig. 25) are frequently found in deposits of the Mesolithic period and this period is characterised by the use of small refined stone tools. Blades of stone were struck directly from prepared stone cores and saw extensive use, particularly in the manufacture of composite tools. Core-blades were used to make a wide range of implements, some of which were specially modified for particular purposes (Figs. 23 and 24).

This was probably one reason why the technology was so successful for such a long period of time. The microlith industry itself is a ‘core and blade’ technology that was most characteristic of the Mesolithic period between 8,000 to 5,000 years ago, although the common use of core blades in Europe began during the Aurignacian Palaeolithic period well over 30,000 years ago. Smaller tools that were more suited to undertaking specific tasks made their appearance at this time and the tool industry as a whole saw the production of tools that were generally more compact, refined and specialised.

Fig. 23. Upper Palaeolithic Gravettian culture flechette (dart) (with 5p coin for scale).
Fig 24. Late Mesolithic stone blade sidescraper/knife (with 5p coin for scale).

At least 20 cultures attributable to the Mesolithic era have now been recognised, with many of these being distinctive cultures that are known to have been made in, but limited to, specific geographical areas such as Central Europe, Eastern Europe, Northern Europe, North Africa and the Far East. Each area produced its own distinctive culture for reasons that can ultimately be attributed to the distribution and dispersal of the increasing human population.

Fig. 25. Two microlith flake implements recovered in 2010 from riverside deposits of the River Blackwater, Essex. (5p coin for scale).

By the time the ‘New Stone Age’ (Neolithic era) dawned, the world population had increased dramatically and many new technological cultures and industries became established. The starting point of the Neolithic era is much debated and different parts of the world are considered to have reached the Neolithic age at different times. However, generally speaking, it is thought to have commenced sometime about 10,000 years ago.

The Neolithic era marks a notable progression in human behavioural and cultural characteristics, including the use of wild crops, domestic crops and domesticated animals in what was true farming. Settlements became more permanent and, for the first time, houses were made of long-lasting mud-brick components as opposed to biodegradable organic materials.

Fig. 26. Three microlith blade implements recovered from riverside sites along the River Crouch, Essex (with 5p coin for scale): top and bottom – Solutrean culture ‘point’ microliths (possibly with a barb function); and middle Gravettian culture, single shouldered blade microlith (suitable for hafting).

The cultivation of crops and domestication of animals marked the beginning of farming practices. In particular, the cultivation of cereal grains resulted in Neolithic people building permanent dwellings and congregating in villages. This release from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer life-style gave rise to the pursuit of numerous specialised crafts. One particular benefit that arose from the development and increased sophistication of farming technology was the possibility of producing crop yields and food supplies in excess of immediate needs. Any surpluses could then be stored for later use or even used for possible trading purposes – a significant development in social organisation.

One identifying characteristic of Neolithic technology is the use of polished or ground stone tools (Fig. 27), as opposed to the ‘flaked’ stone tools that were used during the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic eras. Fine stone arrowheads were also a characteristic production of Neolithic times, making their first appearance at this time. They could be finished either with or without tangs and displayed an enormous range of barb types. They were to play a very significant role in social organisation. Neolithic people had also become skilled farmers manufacturing a wide range of tools used for cultivation and food production. Such tools included sickle blades (Fig. 29), curved knives, quern stones and grinding stones. Applicable for some regions, the appearance of pottery is also considered to be symbolic of Neolithic times along with the craft of weaving.

Fig. 27. Neolithic polished stone axe recovered from the European Alpine region. Note fine polish to surface.

Towards the end of the Neolithic era, tin and copper were discovered as potential manufacturing materials, marking a transition into the period known as the Bronze Age. However, stone was still used as a major manufacturing component to aid in daily life, but there is no doubt that, by this time, man had moved on from his early stone age lifestyle.

Fig 28. Three British Neolithic arrowheads. Created from small, modified blades. Note denticulation (serration) to blades of left hand specimens due to very fine retouch work.
Fig. 29. British Neolithic curved stone sickle blade.

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