The Stone Age began around 2.6 million years ago, when researchers discovered the earliest evidence of humans using stone tools. It lasted until around 3,300 BC, when the Bronze Age began. Normally, the Stone Age is broken down into three periods: the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic.
During much of the early Stone Age, the Earth was in an Ice Age. Humans lived in small, nomadic groups hunting megafauna such as mastodons, saber-toothed cats, giant ground sloths, woolly mammoths, giant bison and deer. They therefore needed tools and weapons to effectively hunt, kill and eat their prey, as well as create warm, portable clothes and structures.
Much of what we know about life in the Stone Age comes from the weapons and tools they left behind. Interestingly, a key discovery from early tool and weapon finds is that they were tailored for right-handed people, which suggests that a tendency towards right-handedness emerged very early on.
Here’s a rundown of some of the most commonly used tools and weapons from the Stone Age.
They relied upon spears and arrows
Though people from the Stone Age had different scrapers, hand axes and other stone tools, the most common and important were spears and arrows. These composite tools – named because they were made of more than one material – normally comprised of a wooden shaft tied to a stone at the top using plant fibres or animal sinews.
Spears were simple but deadly and effective. They were made of wood which was sharpened into a triangular, leaf shape and were widely used as a weapon in wars and hunting by both riders and bare-foot hunters. Spears were either thrown or pushed into an animal or enemy in close combat.
Arrows were made of wood and had a sharpened, pointed head. The tail was often made of feathers, and explosive materials were occasionally also added to the end. Combined with the spear, the bow and arrow was an essential part of a hunter’s arsenal and was also deadly when used in warfare.
Similar to spears and arrows, axes were also widely used and were sharpened into a point against a rock. Though they had a more limited range, they were highly effective when in close combat and were also useful when later preparing an animal as food, or when cutting through wood and undergrowth.
Harpoons and nets helped catch more elusive animals
There is evidence that harpoons were used in the late Stone Age to kill large animals such as whales, tuna and swordfish. A rope was attached to the harpoon in order to pull the hunted animal towards the hunter.
Nets were also used and offered the advantage of not requiring direct human contact. They were made of ropes or threads made of plant fibres or animal sinews, or even tree branches with small spaces between them for larger and more forceful prey. This allowed groups of hunters to capture large and small animals both on land and in the sea.
Different stones were used for butchery and craft
Hammerstones were some of the simplest ancient tools of the Stone Age. Made of a hard, near-unbreakable stone such as sandstone, quartzite or limestone, it was used for striking animal bones and crushing or hitting other stones.
Often, hammerstones were used to make flakes. This consisted of hitting other stones until smaller, sharp flakes of stone broke off. Larger flakes of stone were then sharpened for use as weapons such as axes and bows and arrows.
Especially sharp flakes of stone known as choppers were used for more detailed elements of butchery, such as dividing meat up into smaller pieces and cutting the skin and fur. Choppers were also used to cut plants and plant roots, as well as cut fabrics for warm clothes and portable tent-like structures.
Scrapers were also made of small, sharp stones. These turned raw hides into tents, clothing and other utilities. They varied in size and weight depending on the work they were needed for.
Not all Stone Age weapons were made of stone
There is evidence that groups of humans experimented with other raw materials including bone, ivory and antler, especially during the later Stone Age period. These included bone and ivory needles, bone flutes for playing music and chisel-like stone flakes used for carving antler, wood or bone, or even artwork into a cave wall.
Later weapons and tools also became more diverse, and ‘toolkits’ were made which suggests a faster pace of innovation. For example, during the Mesolithic age, a flake could be a tool whose one side was used as a knife, the second as a hammerstone and the third as a scraper. Different methods of making similar tools also suggest the emergence of distinct cultural identities.
Pottery was also used for food and storage. The oldest pottery known was found at an archaeological site in Japan, with fragments of clay containers used in food preparation found there dating up to 16,500 years old.
Though the Stone Age is sometimes thought of as being an unskilled or unsophisticated era, a number of tools and weapons have been discovered which demonstrate that our ancestors were highly innovative, collaborative and hardy when it came to surviving in an environment which was often unrelentingly harsh.