The History of the Knife Throughout the Ages (and Now)

history of knives

What if someone asked you: “what is mankind’s most important invention”?

You’d probably answer “the wheel”, “language”, “the steam engine, “computers”, “the radio” or “cars”, wouldn’t you?

But did you know that there is one invention that most people fail to mention, but is one of the most important pieces of technology that our species has ever produced?

This is the knife.

The invention of the cutting edge has developed as a result of our common need survival. It has allowed us to reach the top of the food chain in a relatively short amount of time. Without knives our ancestors wouldn’t have been able to hunt, fish, gather food, build homes for themselves or even defend themselves. Most of our civilization as we know it today would not exist were it not for the invention of cutting blades.

Pretty crazy, hey?

But that’s not all…

One main fact that most individuals fail to observe was that the invention of tools such as knives not only made life easier for our ancestors, but gave them more spare time, during which they could socialize or develop new skills, much as we do today!

In this way, knives can be seen as a major antecedent of languages and of many occupations that rule our everyday lives.

What were knives made out of?

Archaeologists have discovered sharp-edged tools as ancient as 2.6 million years old. This is even older than our species, Homo sapiens! Obviously, our bipedal ancestors had figured out that life was much easier with knives than without. The history of knives thus began at a very early stage in the development of our human civilization.

These ‘knives’ weren’t very refined as they were usually made from cracking stones to create a sharp blade-type edge. Similar methods were used to create arrowheads and spearheads. These tools were quite primitive but allowed our hominid predecessors to hunt, fish, defend themselves against animals, harvest and process food.

Neolithic Stone Knives
Neolithic Stone Knives

Knives and blades became much more refined after the appearance of Homo sapiens. The vast majority of our human history only saw stone tools and accessories. Sharp stone tools became more advanced in design during the late Lithic periods, and a variety of techniques was used to produce such ‘knives’ in the Neolithic era.

The copper and bronze ages followed, and of course brought tremendous changes to the ‘sharp-edge’ technology. These new metal tools were much more durable than stone ones, and hence mining and metal-processing became an important activity.

Why does this matter?

The mining of minerals such as copper and tin opened up new trade routes and increased communication between different groups and cultures. Therefore the Copper and Bronze ages can be seen as a major influence that led to the development of our human civilisation.

However, this transition saw a slight drawback. Metal blades were not as sharp as stone edges and did not keep their sharpness as long. This led to the use of sharpening stones, to maintain the function of these new tools.

The Iron age then followed, starting about 3500 years ago. Iron processing was an unmeasurable step forward in human technology. The use of iron meant that tools were much stronger and durable. Iron knives kept their shape and edge much better and longer than stone, copper or bronze knives, and so the use of iron spread rapidly.

Iron Age Knives
Iron Age Knives

The iron alloy steel, made from rubbing carbon – in the form of wood ash – onto the iron blade during the blade-making process, is the material that is most commonly used today in knives and other sharp weapons. Nowadays, new materials are being implemented in the knife-making industry: cobalt alloys, titanium blades and many others; But steel blades are still considered the most durable and efficient and is the most widely-used material for blades of all types. Since the invention of the iron blade, our knives have changed very little.

Read more about the types of blades used in knife-making here.

However, one ‘recent’ creation with regards to knives and blades is the invention of the folding knife, about 600 years ago. These folding knives have surely evolved during these 600 years – better locking mechanisms, stronger attachment, better handle design – but the concept is still the same.

What about knife handles?

With regards to knife handles, these were made out of specific materials and their history differs slightly from that of blades.

What’s the story?

In the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras, the ‘Stone Age’, knives had a distinct blade and handle. However, these knives were made out of one solid piece of quartz, flint, or obsidian. Early traces of separate handles have been found in Hallstatt, a celtic village, where knives were found having bone handles, dated back to the years 600 BC.

flint knife
An Egyptian Flint Knife

Archaeologists have discovered many knives can blades in Ancient Roman cities. Handles were often made out of carved bone, but also commonly from wood and metal. ‘Rare’ materials such as mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell and staghorn were also used in knife handles.

And after that?

The history of the knife handle then really just splits between wood handles and ‘other materials’. Wood is a very popular handle material for knives – It gives the knife style and just looks nice. Soft wood has been used and is still used by artisans because it is easy to carve. However, it is also easily damaged, because it is ‘soft’. Hence, manufacturers often apply plastic resin to the wooden handle to make it more durable and waterproof. In many other cases, hard wood is preferred because it is more resistant and does not need to undergo such processes.

Metal handles have also been very popular throughout history. Iron, the steel, became one of the most commonly-used metals for knife handles.

What about knife handles today?

Today, stainless steel is still widely acclaimed and one of the top materials for knives in general. Aluminium is a cheaper alternative to steel when is comes to making handles, but is not as popular. Metal handles are usually equipped with another material for increased grip, such as leather.

Nowadays, new materials are also being developed and introduced into the knife handle industry. G10 is a synthesized product derived from fiberglass, and is very lightweight and durable, two very important factors for survival and tactical knives.

Another new material is abalone, which comes from the shell of a specific mollusk. However, abalone handles are less durable and are more commonly designed for decorative purposes than usefulness and durability.

Knives and cultures throughout history

Knives, as tools, became essential for survival, since it was as the core of central aspects of life, including harvesting crops, raising and putting down livestock, and general utilities in day-to-day activities.

Since knives are essential for survival, it is quite easy to understand why most cultures have developed their own, and why there is such an interest in knives, even today!

Any average person can list several human civilizations. Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Persians, Chinese, Mayans, Aztecs, Inuit…

What do all of these have in common?

Knives. All of these ancient or modern civilizations had some sort of blade, either as a weapon or a home tool, or both..

Inuits have the famous ulu knife, recognisable by its unique design and shape. The curved blade of the ulu knives allowed it to be used in a variety of tasks. These included food processing, hair-cutting, skinning and cleaning animals, fighting, or even trimming ice blocks to build igloos.

Ulu knife
Ulu knife

In Ancient Egypt, hieroglyph and wall paintings often represent flint blades. The early Egyptian civilization made use of stone tools. It later transitioned to metal knives during the Copper, Bronze and Iron ages. However, flint blades were still kept as traditional ritual accessories, namely for mummification. Knives were portrayed as magical objects. They were often attributed to Bes and Tauret, the guardians of the underworld. Many hieroglyphic paintings also depict scorpions and snakes cut with knives, to render them powerless. This shows that Ancient Egyptians truly considered knives to be magical tools.

Blades in the Roman and Greek civilisations were used for home tasks but also fighting and entertainment (who’s never seen Gladiator?).

Mayans, about 2000 years ago, were found to use stone knives for everyday activities and for their believed human sacrifices. Scientists have even found traces of blood cells, muscle tissue, skin cells and hair on several of these stone blades!

South American Sacrificial Knives
South American Sacrificial Knives

Whether it be for traditions or for fighting, for hunting or agriculture, sharp-edged tools and crafted blades were essential to the development of these people and were at the core of many civilisations throughout history. 

Learn about the Top 16 Historical knives still produced today.

What was the importance of knife carry throughout the ages?

Carrying a knife was an essential part of one’s activities during 99.9% of our human history. People carried around their knife as we today carry around our mobile phones. Knives have always been an irreplaceable mean of defense, and a utility tool for the most basic activities. Knife carry was both a defensive and practical measure during this time. However, today, knife carry is a very controversial topics. Something which was considered normal for millenniums has now become taboo.

Why is that important?

I can remember an incident a few years ago when I was walking out of town to go try out my new survival knife, and was carving wood on the way (by the way, I don’t recommend wood-carving and walking at the same time – this was quite a bad idea). I got stopped by a woman who looked very concerned. She told me that she would report me to the police if I didn’t put my knife away immediately.

The problem nowadays is that people see knives as weapons, rather than what they were originally designed to be: tools. I mean, I find it really practical to carry my knife around. Especially when it comes to doing small tasks that you don’t have the equipment for. I often use my utility knife as a screwdriver for example. These days you even get pocket knives which have actual screwdrivers on  them! However, I still followed that women’s advice and did not show off my knife when I carried it around.

What are the types of laws governing knife ownership and use?

There are many rules and regulations around knife carry. These laws differ from country to country, or state to state when it comes to the USA. In general, knife legislation is divided into 3 sets of rules: ownership laws, carry laws and other laws.

Ownership laws forbid the ownership of certain types of knives, which are usually judged as ‘dangerous’ or ‘deadly’. Many such knives have been associated with unlawful individuals or groups, which is why, for example, ownership of the Bowie knife is forbidden in many states of the USA.

Carry laws prevent individuals from carrying certain types of knives, whether it be open or concealed. Knives that are deemed to be used more as a weapon than a tool are often barred from carry. In many places, the types of carry plays an important role. For the same knife, open carry may be allowed but concealed carry if forbidden.

Other laws are often related to aggravated crimes. For example, robbery is a crime, but robbery with a knife is an aggravated crime and the punishment is more than for simple robbery.

Read more about knife legislation here.

And now?

Generally, knives that are intended for utility uses are allowed in most places. The ownership and carry of pocket knives and multitools is hence allowed in a vast majority of countries and states. However, there might be areas where all blades are forbidden, including infrastructures such as schools, planes or embassies.

It is a tool rather than a weapon, although it can clearly be used as such. But so can many other tools and accessories – shovels, razor blades, baseball clubs, glass bottles, hammers, HB pencils… But knives have been used as weapons forever as well. Take Julius Caesar, who was stabbed to death by members of the senate in 44 B. So, I don’t really know why knife carry has become such an issue these days. Knives have been the most basic tool invented by humanity, throughout its entire history. This is the first time in this history that carrying knife around is considered a problem.

Want to add your own knowledge about the history of knives? Think I missed something? Please feel free to comment in the section below!

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