Stone Tool Stories: Hafted knives

Most stone knives throughout prehistory were simple unmodified flakes that were used briefly and discarded.  However, unmodified flakes, and more complex blades and bifacial tools, were sometimes given handles.  The earliest known example of hafted knives were made by affixing lumps of plant resin directly onto an unmodified flake.  These tools, from the Campitello site in Italy, were likely made by Homo neanderthalensis and date to ca. 200,000 BP.  The resin provided an enhanced grip and protected the fingers from cuts. 

Leilira with bark sheath 1

Macroblade (Leilira) Knife

Hafted flake Central Australia

Hafted Flake

Hafted macroblade knife 1

Macroblade (Leilira) Knife

Hafted bifacial knife, Switzerland

Hafted Bifacial Dagger

Ulu, hafted


Hafted flake, Chile

Hafted Flake

Macroblade knife, Papua New Guinea

Macroblade Knife

Leilira macroblade knife

Macroblade (Leilira) Knife

Similar knives were made through the 1960s by Pitjandjara and Nakako craftsmen in Central Australia, who applied spinifex grass resin to flake knives called tjimari or kandi, depending on the tool’s size.  These tools were sometimes retouched on the edge opposite the resin.  Elongated macroblade leilira knives from Central Australia, and juan knives from eastern Australia, were often hafted by applying spinifex directly to the proximal end.

Another approach to hafting involved forcing the end of the stone knife into a socket made by hollowing out bone, antler, or wood.  The proximal end of the stone was often flaked into a stem for insertion into the socket.  The knife was usually held in place by friction from the tight fit.  Slate ulu knives from Arctic North America were frequently hafted by friction in wood or bone handles, sometimes augmented by lashing through holes drilled through the stone knife blade.

A common knife-hafting approach was to split a wood handle into two pieces, hollow out one end of the split pair, and bind the handle back together with the butt of the stone knife resting in the hollow.  The handle parts were usually bound to the knife with sinew, rawhide, or plant fibre string, sometimes augmented with glue or resin.  The proximal end of the stone knife was often notched or stemmed to receive the binding.  Sometimes the handle was only partially split and the stone knife was secured into the split, which was then bound. Large leilira macroblades made historically in Central Australia were given flat wood handles held in place by spinifex resin.  Small, unmodified expedient flake knives were secured into split sticks, with or without binding; this was practiced historically in Australia, New Guinea, on the west coast of North America, and dates up to 9000 years ago in Chile.

Daggers made in Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Denmark had handles flaked directly onto the proximal end.  An Early Bronze Age flint dagger was recovered by archaeologists with birch bark strips wrapped expertly around the stone handle.  Some juan knives from Australia were similarly wrapped with possum skin pressed into spinifex resin.  Stone knives from Korea, made by sawing and grinding, were usually one-piece with the handle carved into the proximal end.

Composite knives were made by affixing small, sharp-edged microliths in series onto wood or bone handles.  Composite knives like these were made from sheep metatarsals in Eastern Europe, and composite sickles with wood or bone handles and microlith inserts are well-known in Western Asia.  The stone elements might held into grooves by friction or, as in the case of taap knives of Western Australia, glued to the knife handle using plant resin.  Grain threshing sleds were made until recent times in the Mediterranean region by hammering simple unmodified flakes into soft boards.

The handle part of some stone knives were undecorated and utilitarian, but handles were often highly decorated and used for social signalling.  This was a principal function of the painted wood handles on Australian leilira blades, and even the simple resin handles on tjimari and kandi knives were decorated with red ochre, eagle down feathers, or human hair.   Exceptionally complex carvings were made into the ivory, bone, or wood handles of stone knives recovered from burials and ceremonial sites in Europe, Egypt, Western Asia, and Mesoamerica.