What even the most woods-wise among us today might consider a “survival mode” was just everyday life to ancient people, and their basic tool kit came from beneath their feet.

The legacy these very old-timers have bequeathed subsequent generations is the valuable lesson that you can routinely get good work from the most simple of stone tools that you can make yourself. Paleolithic peoples in North America, and the later Neolithic peoples who met immigrating Europeans, made universal and effective use of stone tools. In latter years, Native American tool-making skills showed a degree of sophistication approaching art.

How sophisticated these stone tools might be varied a lot with the period and the skill levels of those making them, but even recent Neolithic cultures, especially if nomadic, would make ad-hoc, rudely formed tools to do a job if they did not have their tool kit with them. 

Lithic tool making is often re-learned out of necessity by men of an “advanced” culture when they have to make do. This included early Europeans who did without the tools they would have liked, and the envelope-pushing explorers, mountain men and the staunch frontiersmen who first ventured west. Any person in similar straits can also do as has been done for millions of years: The self-made stone tool that you had was more useful than the tomahawk or Bowie knife that you did not have, and still is.

There is an adage that “every stone tool ever made is somewhere.” The survivability of stone-based implements from Paleolithic or Neolithic times is exponentially better than newer Bronze Age tools, and Bronze Age tools are in turn much more climate resistant than recent Iron Age tools of a few thousand years ago. Stone tools are common artifacts because they are better at resisting the elements—although fragile, they neither rust nor corrode. 

Paleontologists study stone tools, the circumstances of where they were used and their juxtaposition with other artifacts to establish when they were made, how they were made and who made them. The earliest-dated bones bearing scars from stone tools are thought to be more than 7,000,000 years old. Make-and-use skills for stone tools have sometimes waned, only to be re-learned and used again. Unrelated peoples have developed similar tools and techniques at different times and locations by using universal materials and doing what works. Any man can pick up two rocks, break one against the other and get useful tools. Compared to skinning a deer with your teeth or cracking nuts with your fingers, a sharp rock is handy indeed.

stone tools

A collection of primitive stone tools

Early Hardware 

Some of the earliest traceable commerce was in stone tools, which implies that some people made better tools than others, but crude tools are still useful and not difficult to form with entry-level skill. The oldest Paleolithic and early “Oldowan” (aka “Mode 1”) tools show rough workmanship—made on-site, used as needed and often discarded. Much later tools were more carefully made and found remote from their source: Somebody thought enough of an item to invest more labor and add it to his kit.

It was good news for a bare-handed immigrant or Paleolithic native that the stones at hand could readily be shaped into tools to pound, chop, pierce, slice-and-dice or handle other tasks—even to make more and better tools. The beauty part was that although some rocks are better than others, rocks are all over. Even Neolithic sites such as Fort Rock, Oregon, are littered with “oops” pieces—if their first attempt didn’t work, they’d grab another rock and try again. Even my experiments over the years usually produced useful “oops” items. Making a palm knife might produce an unintended but useful burin (scribe), or a larger flake from an attempt to produce a large knife might produce a sharp and useful miniscule blade. 

The more primitive the ancient tool the more difficult to decide whether they are human-made artifacts or a prehistoric lucky find. Cases in point are the Oldowan “pebble tools,” from the dawn of the Paleolithic Age. A fair guess might be that the first sharp stone tools were found and used as-is, then somebody couldn’t find a sharp rock so he whacked “Rock A” with “Rock B” to make one, and we’ve been doing it with varying degrees of sophistication ever since.

Early man learned that a crudely made or as-found edge could be improved upon by dressing it with additional oblique whacks to make it thinner, sharper or otherwise better. Then they noticed some kinds of stone were better than others for breaking into a sharp edge, and skills were developed to find the best rocks and carefully form them in the best way to accomplish the job at hand.

These earliest and crudest examples illustrate that even the roughest stone tool, as found or made with a stroke or two, can have usefulness that far exceeds the bare hand, and that any frontiersman or native who could pick up a rock could make them. Then or now, if you are on your own in the wilderness, simple tools of great utility are literally within arm’s reach.

Paleontologists use the evolving techniques of stone tool manufacture as one guide to track people through time and geography, with organized systems of classification. Alone in the wilderness, natives or frontiersmen alike would keep it simple as they just tried to do the job at hand. We’ll do the same here and just classify the tools by how they are made and might be used on the spot. 

stone tools

Obsidian is a delicate stone and requires the craftsman to choose the right piece from which to carve

Suitable Rocks

For tools, hard and fine-textured rocks are best. Except for as-is pounders, rocks that have a natural “grain” and will break or split along predictable lines, or ones that have no discernable crystal structure, are best. Rocks that break off flakes with a shell-like shape usually produce the finest edge. One nice goose-egg cob can produce two tools: a large flake chipped from one side becomes a semi-circular knife, and the larger remaining core becomes a chopper or scraper. 

Most surviving specimens were made of quartz, basalt or obsidian. Later, better but more difficult materials such as flint and chert were worked. I found a Paleolithic-form palm knife of red jasper, and many Neolithic bird points of chalcedony (colorless agate) and jasper in the northern Sonoran Desert. Other rocks such as fine-grained aplitic granite, diorite or massive andesite could make fine hammer stones, or even blades if you do not require a fine edge. Any rock with a sharp edge would probably serve, at least for a while. So easy was it to form a basic tool that only in later archeological digs is there evidence of folks re-working or touching-up a cutting edge that had chipped or worn dull.

The work piece is called the core, and the part that breaks off is the flake. The spot where the work piece is struck, usually obliquely on one edge in hopes of breaking off a useful flake, is the “striking platform.” Breaking larger rocks into useful smaller rocks is called “lithic reduction.” Later lithic cultures used leveraged pressure, and heating and localized cooling in addition to impact. Frontiersmen or a native on the move would probably just use simple percussion techniques. This striking the edge of the workpiece with oblique blows to flake away material is called “knapping,” a skill known to frontiersmen with flintlock rifles.

Because the earliest tools were simply split cobbles, it is not always obvious which part was the flake. Early artifacts can look like a happy accident of nature, so archeologists carefully study the use marks, because old-timers, including the very old-timers, would gladly accept a natural freebie. A river bank will yield stones already having some of the form of a tool, especially hammer stones. Those with the more angular shape usually are the hardest. Ancients, followed by Neolithic folks and frontiersmen alike, tended to live along water courses, the obvious source of hand-sized cobs suitable to form rude tools.

A single Oldowan tool would probably be used for more than one purpose, and frontiersmen could plan to do the same. In the woods, a large flake might work as a knife, scraper or even an axe or digging tool. Fortunately, the shape of a stone often suggests what you can make out of it… and the shape you make may suggest what you can actually use it for.

Paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey classified Oldowan tools as “heavy duty” (for pounding, chopping, heavy scraping); then “light duty” (flakes such as an awl with a point for boring or piercing, or a burin with a point suitable for scribing or engraving, or a light-duty scraper or finger knife); and “utilized pieces” (happy accidents usable for something else); and finally “debitage” (scrap). Heavy-duty tools are mainly cores. Light-duty tools are mainly flakes.


The most obvious pounder is the “hammer stone” mentioned above. Un-hafted, a pounder is held in
the hand like a base
ball, but instead of being thrown it is used to work on another object, which varied from a stone being shaped, a nut or a bone being cracked, hides being softened, roots macerated and the like. Stones shaped longer, rather than those that are spherical, are the safest to use as they keep the hand away from the work. Later, putting hafts on pounders and choppers not only kept the user’s hand safer, but it gave the ability to store energy in the head as it was swung, for greater impact. In either a minimalist Oldowan or a frontier setting, a hammer stone had a good chance of being used “as found.”

The drawing  shows how a hand axe was held for chopping, sharp point down.

The drawing shows how a hand axe was held for chopping, sharp point down.


The un-hafted hand axe was the prevalent Paleolithic tool, and because it did so many things so well it took a long time for it to develop into separate tools to chop, scrape or cut. It was also one of the most common improvised tools among bare-handed nomads or immigrants. The late Neolithic polished greenstone axe head, a far more sophisticated development, was common up until the wide use of steel.

Hand axes usually evolved into a flatter oval or tear-drop shape that might be confused with a blunt spear point were it not for its much larger dimension, thickness and weight. A chopper has an edge on one or more sides and is used much in the manner of a pounder, where the idea is to part or cut rather than to smash the work piece. Hand axes are so varied that they do not actually have a single common characteristic. Hand “axes” were recycled, resharpened or reshaped during their useful lives; they were not just axes but could be used for digging, cutting, scraping, chopping, piercing, hammering or even throwing en masse at game clustered around a water hole.

Even ones chipped from a core with a hammer stone have taken every conceivable shape. Choppers are called “unifacial” if the edge was created by flaking away one face, or “bifacial” if from two. Discoid tools are roughly circular with a peripheral edge. Polyhedral tools are usually what remains of a core that has been flaked on several sides.

Scrapers & Slicers

A scraper can simply be a chopper with an edge smooth enough for clean scraping, such as scraping cambium pine or birch pulp for food after the bark has been chopped off, or a smaller flake used for more delicate work such as fleshing a hide.

A slicer has an outside radius that is sharp and smooth enough to be a knife, or used with a positive rocking/sawing motion, similar to an ulu. Even small, sharp chips serve for precise slicing of meat. Ancient Middle Eastern inhabitants even used miniscule flint knives, possibly debitage from a larger tool, for butchering fallow deer. A chip the size of a two-bit piece can readily disassemble a small deer using smaller cuts and more of them.

Piercers & Engravers

Despite flexural weakness, arrowheads, spearheads and awls worked fine if carefully chipped and gently used, even for shaping or boring wood or bone. This helped early men make hafted tools and other useful objects, including projectile weapons. Hafted hand tools and projectile weapons represent a step up in technology over the simple, or ad hoc, stone hand tool of Oldowan times. These next-generation implements, however, were built with the aid of the simple “pebble tools” shown here, so this is where we started. And that is where a bare-handed frontiersman would start if he had a job to do and no tools to do it.  

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This article originally published in AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  2014-#158 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  magazine are available here