Knives have a long, long history. In fact, they were among the first tools ever invented. I would argue that, while mankind is no longer considered unique for its toolmaking ability, it is unique for its knife-making ability. And since I’m fascinated by history, I’m going to share with you today the history of the knife – the most influential tool in human history.
In elementary school, I remember my teacher explaining to the class that spoons were likely the first tool. After all, he said, people could pick up solid foods with their hands and tear them with their teeth and fingers. Unfortunately, they could not cup water, therefore the spoon would’ve been invented first.
Sound enough logic, but that’s not what the archeological and fossil records indicate. No, it was the knife that was the first recognizable tool. With a knife, you could more easily forage, slice through hides to make clothing, cut meat for cooking, and take down prey. Humans are ill-equipped for hunting. We aren’t the fastest or the strongest, unlike a lion or a wolf.
In most man vs beast scenarios, man loses.
Knives, even if it’s just something sharp fastened to the end of a long shaft to create a spear, are the key to our climb up the food chain. Because of knives, hunter-gatherers were able to give rise to civilizations, trade was established, and the world as we know was carved from their blades. They became tools for living and weapons for conquering.
This is the story of knives.
Table of Contents
The First Knives - Stone Age
Did you know that archeologists have discovered sharp-edged tools as old as 2.6 million years? This means that, depending on who you speak to, knife-like tools have been around longer than our own species has. Granted, they weren’t what you and I would think of immediately upon hearing the the word ‘knife’, but they got the job done. As in the image (courtesy of the BBC), they didn’t have a very uniform shape; the goal was to get at least one sharp edge that could be used in a variety of ways. These ‘knives’ allowed our ancestral predecessors to fish, hunt, defend themselves, process food, cut hides to make clothes, and even harvest plants.
After Neanderthals and Early Modern Humans arrived on the scene, knives start to become more complex and other tools, such as toothpicks, start popping up. Knives are fixed to long shafts to become spears and arrows, thus hunts become more successful, and we can only assume warfare becomes more brutal.
Since I can’t possibly spirit us away into the ages of copper and bronze without touching on my favorite extinct species, Neanderthals, I’m going to take this time to talk a little bit about their tools.
These fascinating people crafted complex stone knives, spears, axes, harpoons, and engraving tools. They invented a kind of glue made from pitch to help hold their spear points in place and likely even created wooden handles to set their ‘blades’ in. They also made scraping tools to create clothing from animal skins.
The secret to their survival for 100,000 years was the way the Neanderthals worked with ‘core’ tools. These stone age craftsmen would shape a stone core on both sides, flaking off pieces until one great blow would detach a razor-sharp flake of the desired shape and size. Some of their tools were even backed so the could fit comfortably into the hand behind the index finger. That allowed the finger to be used for leverage, and even their axes were made with notches for their thumbs and fingers, elevating grip.
Of course, some of their ‘knives’ were made more simply out of shells. Shells can be natural knives, if found in the right conditions. This allowed Neanderthals to get knives for quick and dirty work without putting in all the time to carve them from stone and rock. They would further sharpen the edges with stone hammers, retouching the shells to make them even sharper.
Although evidence suggests that both Neanderthals and Early Modern Humans exchanged techniques and technologies, Neanderthals still seemed to prefer their own way, their tools changing little for approximately 100,000 years. I guess there’s no need to change what isn’t broken, right?
Knives Become More Specialized - The Copper and Bronze Ages
At around 4,500 BC, humans began to forge their tools, allowing them to move beyond crude stones and into a kind of more modern craft. Around 3,300 BC, we begin to see the first sword-like weapons emerge in the archeological record, although copper was being hammered out of the rock as far back as 10,000 years ago.
What made copper so valuable is that it’s a metal that occurs naturally, making it ready-usable as metal. When humans began smelting 7,000 years ago, it was likely to take advantage of this precious new commodity. Even Ötzi the Iceman carried a copper knife, perhaps making his small tool one of the first EDC (everyday carry) knives ever invented.
Things really got cooking (literally) in the Bronze Age. Copper was being mixed with tiny amounts of arsenic and/or tin (sometimes both, sometimes just one), which resulted in a stiffer, harder metal. All of this started around 5,700 years ago in southeastern Europe, but only about 2,500 years ago further north.
Mining copper and tin coincided with the rise of the first major human civilizations and opened up new trade routes, increasing interactions between different groups and cultures. A lot of metal daggers arose during this time. By the time we hit the early second millennium AD, daggers were being made and traded from as far south as Crete to modern-day Scandinavia in the north.
There’s a drawback, however. Metal blades weren’t as sharp as their stone predecessors, believe it or not, nor did they hold their sharpness for as long. As such, we also see the rise of wet stones during this time, repurposing the stone from being a tool to cut to being a tool to sharpen the metal cutting and slicing tool that’s replaced it.
The rise of ornamental daggers likely also arose during this time, although most knives were being used functionally. Archeologists have uncovered daggers that showed signs of being majorly reduced by sharpening them. Fun fact, but The Illiad and The Odyssey are both Bronze Age stories.
Metals Become More Complex - The Iron Age
At around 1,200 BC, the iron age kicked off. This was a huge step in terms of technology, bringing about the creation of far more durable tools. For perhaps the first time, metal knives could keep their edge sharper than stone and for longer. Naturally, this caused the rapid spread of iron throughout the developed world.
Iron alloy steel is made from rubbing carbon (usually in the form of wood ash) onto the iron blade during its creation. While today we use many materials in addition to carbon (see the guide to knife steels for more information), carbon is still creating the hardest blades. It is for this reason, that knife-making has changed only a little since the dawn of the Iron Age.
The use of iron happened almost by accident, however. While steel goes back at least 4,000 years, it was too costly to mass produce. Think of Damascus steel and its rarity to get a clear picture of how highly prized and uncommon a steel blade was.
However, trade disruptions caused tin to become unavailable for some time, so iron started to grow in popularity. Luckily, once people figure out how some piece of technology is accomplished, producing it becomes cheaper and faster than when it was first discovered. So it was with iron, and by the time tin became available again, iron already had a reputation for being stronger, lighter, and cheaper than bronze and copper.
Of course, this gave rise to high-temperature forges, as iron needs to be worked at very high temperatures in a special furnace to reach its melting point. As these forges became more prevalent, so did iron.
What About Knives Nowadays?
Knives have managed to evolve with us and step into the modern world. They are still one of our most useful tools, although people’s attitudes towards them has changed somewhat. Unless a knife is in the kitchen or a woodworker’s shop, people sometimes assume you have them for nefarious purposes.
I personally have a knife on me at all times. Usually it’s a multipurpose knife, but I’ve carried pocket knives, neck knives, belt knives, and more. Moreover, I always keep a serrated knife in my vehicle in case I need to cut myself, a passenger, or someone else who’s had an accident out of a seatbelt. They’re also good for basic survival in case you get stranded somewhere.
However, the modern world is full of regulations around knife carry, and, unlike gun advocates, knife advocacy and knife ownership in regards to the Second Amendment (in the United States, anyway) is more recent.
Some states regulated what you can and cannot own while others regulate what can be carried, where, and how you carry it. For more information, see this page on knife laws for a broad overview of what’s allowed in your state, if you’re American.
However, most utility knives are generally allowed. Most countries allow the ownership of pocket knives and multitool knives, even if there are places where knives of any kind are forbidden, such as schools and courthouses.
Regardless of some folk’s fear of knives, they’re still with us. I’m sure they always will be, too, even in this day of firearms and machines that can do many of the things that blades can. We aren’t close to replacing a saw, a whittling tool, or being able to cut and prepare our food without this tool.
Fun Knife Trivia
The history of knives is long and far more complicated than a single blog post can convey, although I do my best. The best way to see how knives were used and viewed throughout history, however, is through anecdotes and other trivia. This may form a blog post of its own later, but I can’t help sprinkling some tidbits for you here.
Knives Were Part of the Wardrobe for Medieval People
Knives weren’t always provided at the table, even though they were likely considered an eating utensil very early on in their creation, in addition to being weapons and other tools. However, the idea of a table knife is quite recent, historically speaking. Since hosts didn’t provide cutlery for guests in the Middle Ages in Europe, most people simply carried their own knives in sheaths attached to their belts, men and women alike.
These knives were the original EDC for many people. They were narrow with sharp, pointy ends, as their purpose was to spear food and raise it to their mouths to eat. Forks weren’t as common as the movies would have you believe (they were for cooking, not eating with), and it was considered ill-mannered to eat with your hands.
King Louis XIV Was Anti-Knife
King Louis XIV wasn’t the most knife-friendly monarch France ever had. In fact, in 1669, he decreed that all pointed knives on the street or the dinner table were ‘illegal’. The result was that the points were ground down, similar to those we see at the table today, in order to reduce knife violence.
Knives took on interesting shapes during this period as a result. The blunt ends were made wider and rounded and many incorporated pistol-grip types of handles that sported blades that curved backward to people’s wrists wouldn’t have to be twisted and contorted to bring food to their mouths.
Have your own interesting tidbits to share? Sound off in the comments below!