From Stone to Steel: A History of Knives and Blades
Knives. What would we do without them? No, literally. Imagine hunting an animal and carving meat without a knife. Imagine trying to cut down a tree without a sharp, durable blade. For a more modern-day example, imagine opening your Amazon package or eating a steak without a knife.
Knives give us comfort and convenience––more importantly, they help us survive. If I was on a deserted island, I would need a knife more than anything to survive. With a knife, I could cut down trees to make a shelter. I could carve out a coconut to make a container for water. I could chop up plants and hunt animals with a knife. This is the exact situation our ancestors were in 2.5 million years ago: They needed knife-like objects to survive against the elements, dehydration, and starvation.
The earliest-known object resembling a knife was discovered in an archeological site in Tanzania, called Oldowan. This object––simply put––was a stone (not really a knife or blade at all) and it was used for cutting plants and butchering animals.
After stone, in 4000 BCE, Egyptians made knives carved out of flint and obsidian. These blades were made by chipping, scratching, or cutting them with another material. It is speculated by historians that bladesmithing predated the discovery of fire.
When fire-making was discovered, the use of fire for forging a blade revolutionized how weapons and knives were made.
The discovery and use of iron in 1000 BCE also changed the knife-making game. However, iron, alone, was not a strong material because it was prone to rusting and it was too malleable.
By 900 BCE, ancient Egyptians made steel by combining carbon and iron, creating an efficient and strong material. Since then, steel has developed into various types such as stainless steel, alloy steel, and high-chrome steel. Steel has been used for millennia since its discovery in 900 BCE.
Swords were first formed out of copper. During the Roman era, swords such as the Gladius were made of high-carbon steel. By this point, bladesmiths had a good idea of how to manipulate the blades and metals to work well in combat. The Gladius had a blade made for slashing and cutting.
By medieval times, the blade of knives had evolved from a single blade to a double-edged blade, making for a more deadly impact.
Fun fact: in the 1450s, upper-class people would eat their meals with the same blade they fought battles with—talk about a health risk! The idea that separate blades should be used in the kitchen and battle originated in the 1600s—likely after many accidents involving severed tongues and hands at the dinner table.
Smaller, compact knives such as pocket knives have existed since the Iron Age, about 600 BCE. Then, in the 1650s, these were called ‘penny knives’ and were made cheap and widely available. Specialized knives such as the butcher’s knife and bread knife originated in the 1800s. Over millennia, knives were separated and specialized into knives with blades designed for a specific culinary use and purpose.
As knife-making materials changed, so did the designs of blades and their handles. Paleolithic stone knives had leather or fur wrapping around the handles. The Roman soldier’s Pugio had a blade that was thin and a sheath that served a functional, but aesthetic, purpose. Gems and ornate designs have been evident in knife handles and blades since the Bronze Age.
Different designs or styles of blades could also communicate rank within armies. Fighting knives and blades were designed to have different uses in battle, giving rise to different blade lengths and designs. For example, a short blade would be preferred for close combat fighting, whereas a longer blade would be used on horseback or in other forms of battle.
Since industrialization, most knives have been standardized. Everyone owns a set of knives which include a paring knife, a serrated knife, and a chef’s knife. However, with the standardization of knives, there has been a greater appreciation for the craft of modern-day bladesmiths; people can appreciate the craftsmanship of a lightweight, ornately designed blade.
This makes bladesmithing today a relevant and unique trade with a deep history. The evolution of knives and knifemaking, from stone to steel, reflects how knives and blades have evolved with humankind. Over 2.5 million years, knives have remained a critical tool, carrying cultural relevance and importance over many millennia.
Even today, the fact remains true: we need knives for our survival. Knives will always be a part of human existence. What will they look like in the next millennia?