Ancient humans may have risked their lives making stone tools

Modern flintknappers experience a wide variety of injuries that could have led to life-changing consequences or death for ancient humans making stone tools.

Modern flintknappers who practice making stone tools hurt themselves with surprising frequency. But injuries that today require stitches or a trip to the emergency room could have been a death sentence for an ancient stone worker living in an era before modern medicine and antibiotics.

Injuries from making stone tools could have resulted in loss of life and limb for ancient humans
Kent State University/American Antiquity/Michelle Bebber

Some of the flintknapper injuries reported in a first-of-its-kind survey can seem almost comical, with two people admitted to hitting themselves in the testicles and one person dropping a hammerstone on their own foot. More serious injuries involved broken bones, cuts to the bone and even wounds that exposed muscles or pulsing arteries – all suggesting that ancient humans potentially risked life and limb to craft cutting tools and weapons.

“It’s way more dangerous than we anticipated – even if you get one severe injury once in your life, the injuries that we recorded would put you out of commission,” says Metin Eren at Kent State University in Ohio. “If you’re exposing an artery in the Stone Age, that would affect you.”

Metin and his colleagues got detailed and sometimes graphic responses from 173 flintknappers in an extensive survey sent out to the community of people practising stone toolmaking. Modern flintknapping carries on a long tradition of humans making stone tools with sharp points and blades over the last 3 million years.

Making stone tools involves holding a rock in one hand or in the lap while striking off flakes with another stone or tools made from deer antlers or wood. That is reflected in how cuts to the fingers and hands represented more than 30 per cent of all reported injuries among modern flintknappers. 

But the survey also showed “there’s a lot of different ways to get hurt”, says Eren. For example, more than 20 per cent of flintknappers reported having gotten sharp stone flakes in their eyes, even though such eye incidents made up just 5 per cent of all reported injuries. The risk of eye injury could have been even greater for ancient humans without the protective eyewear used by most modern flintknappers.

Modern flintknappers also reported injuring themselves frequently, with 34 per cent saying they injured themselves often or very often. Another 13 per cent said they injured themselves every time they practised making stone tools.

Almost a quarter of flintknappers said they had to seek professional medical attention for an injury. That percentage could have been higher if not for some respondents saying they should have gotten stitches but instead cleaned and glued their wounds on their own.

The study shows “an intrinsic risk of pretty serious injury in stone working” and provides a useful baseline for future research, says John Shea at Stony Brook University in New York. But Shea also cautioned against assuming people in the past regularly incurred life-threatening or disabling injuries from making stone tools such as hand axes and spear points.

Unlike modern flintknappers who frequently practice making stone tools as a hobby, Shea pointed out that ancient humans could have produced enough stone tools for their family or group in just an hour of focused work.

“If you or I were living in a pre-medicine world, we would probably not spend a lot of time banging razor sharp rocks together,” says Shea. “We would want to do it as little as possible.”

Journal reference:

American Antiquity DOI: 10.1017/aaq.2023.27

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