Stone Age Flint Tools

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Flint was a very important part of Stone Age life, but why? In this lesson, we'll see how flint was used and what made it so valuable to people of the Stone Age.

Stone Age Flint Tools

If there's anything we know about the Flintstones, it's that they're the modern Stone-Age family. While we all laughed along with the foot-powered car and the pet dinosaur in Hanna-Barbera's famous cartoon series, did you ever wonder about the name? It's no accident that your average Stone-Age family is named after a stone, and not just any stone.

Flint is a rock. More specifically, it's a sedimentary rock, and a type of microcrystalline quartz in the chert family. It's also one the most important materials used by actual Stone Age people. No matter where you look in the world, you'll find that flint was utilized more ubiquitously than practically any other kind of stone. It was the basis of Stone Age technologies. So, you'll have to meet the Flintstones on your own time; today we're going to meet flint.

A good piece of flint like this could be made into several tools

Why Flint?

Flint was one of the most important materials in the Stone Age, used by people everywhere around the world. This raises at least one obvious question: why? What makes flint so special?

Flint is a unique kind of rock. Like other forms of quartz, it's very hard and very durable. That's useful. After all, for all the effort it would take a nomadic people to create their tools, you don't want to waste resources or time. So, why not just use quartz? As a microcrystalline variety of quartz, flint has a unique molecular structure. There's a lot of science that we don't really need to discuss here, but what matters is that when you strike flint in just the right way, it breaks into uniform flakes with a very sharp edge.

This is what made flint so valuable to ancient people. It was hard enough to be used time and again, but was also workable. They knew that if they took a large piece of flint and hit it with another rock or bone, it would break in predictable and controllable ways. Other kinds of rock would just shatter or splinter, making them impossible to craft into a useable tool. Flint is one of the best stones there is for creating a reliable tool, particularly if you need one with a sharp edge, and ancient people around the world discovered that.

Stone Tools

So, what kinds of tools did people actually make with flint? The ancient toolkit could be pretty diverse. One of the oldest tools is the biface. A biface is simply a large chunk of stone that has been flaked off of the core, and then sharpened or shaped on both faces. So, it has a sharp edge, generally narrower at one end, and wider at the other where it was held or hafted onto a stick. Basic bifaces like this were used as hand-axes for cutting wood and animal bones, and possibly for digging as well. Examples of flint bifaces date back over 800,000 years to the ancestors of humans.

A flint hand-axe

Hand-axes tended to be large, big enough to hold in your hand. Other flint tools were made from smaller and thinner flakes that were chipped off of the core. Scrapers had a somewhat rounded edge, and were mainly used to scrape animal hides. Stone age people also made flint knives, which looked sort of like small, rectangular saws. They were mostly used for cutting, but serrated knives may have been used like saws for cutting wood specifically.

One of the most important tools in the Stone Age toolkit, however, was the projectile point. Projectile points were bifaces carved to a distinct point, and hafted onto a stick to be used either as a spearhead or arrowhead. This is where the durability of flint really mattered. It took hours to create a single projectile point, so you wanted to end up with a tool that was strong enough to be used multiple times, even when speeding through the air and striking the bone of a large animal like a mammoth.

Flint projectile point from Stone Age Germany

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