• Fri. Jun 2nd, 2023

the sharpest tools of the ancients are still in use


Apr 12, 2023

As we hurry by way of our day by day routines, always looking out for the newest and biggest in know-how and innovation, it’s simple to neglect the remarkable feats of our ancestors. Millennia in the past, lengthy earlier than the arrival of metal, our historic ancestors crafted a number of the sharpest and most exact instruments utilizing an intriguing materials – obsidian. This jet-black object was prized by historic societies for its sharpness and sturdiness.

A knife original from obsidian utilizing a course of referred to as “knapping“. © Alejandro Linares Garcia

Obsidian was so priceless that it was traded between distant societies, and wars had been fought over it. However, not like many different historic artifacts, obsidian has not misplaced its relevance over time. It’s fascinating to suppose that this historic stone remains to be in use right now, and its story continues to be informed.

The historical past of obsidian instruments

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Late neolithic projectile factors of obsidian and flint from the Cave of Euripides (5,300–4,300 BC). Archaeological Museum in Salamis, Greece. © Wikimedia Commons

The earliest recorded utilization of obsidian may be traced again to Kariandusi, Kenya, and different places of the Acheulian age, which dates again to 700,000 BC. Nonetheless, only some objects from this era have emerged relative to the Neolithic period.

Manufacturing of obsidian bladelets at Lipari had attained a extra excessive stage of preciseness within the late Neolithic and was traded throughout Sicily, southern Po river valley, and Croatia. Obsidian bladelets had been utilized throughout ceremonial circumcisions and the reducing of newborns’ umbilical cords. Information reveal that Anatolian sources of obsidian had been utilized within the Levant and modern-day Iraqi Kurdistan starting in roughly 12,500 BC. Obsidian relics are prevalent at Inform Brak, one of many earliest city facilities in Mesopotamia, relationship again to the late fifth millennium BC.

After Stone Age, when the world started to vary with the adoption of bronze, brass, and metal for weapons and societies superior, the Aztecs didn’t readily undertake metallic weapons. There was no must, as that they had obsidian of their fingers.

The Mayan Indians are credited with utilizing extremely subtle obsidian blades first 2,500 years in the past. Since obsidian will fracture right down to a single atom, it’s claimed to have a innovative 5 hundred instances sharper than the sharpest metal blade, and underneath a excessive magnification microscope an obsidian blade nonetheless seems easy, whereas a metal blade has a noticed like edge.

How did Aztecs create or form instruments and weapons manufactured from obsidian?

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Historic Meixtec obsidian ceremonial knife present in Mexico, c. 1200-1500 AD. The Mixtec Civilization was a sophisticated individuals who entered the Mexican Valley round 1100 CE. They dominated an space referred to as Oaxaca (changing the Zapotec rule) till the Aztecs conquered them within the mid-1400s. The Mixtecs suffered vastly underneath Aztec dominion and had been compelled to pay them cash and people for sacrifice. © Wikimedia Commons

The Aztecs weren’t required to fabricate obsidian; it might be readily procured. Obsidian is a sort of naturally current glass that emerges when lava, discharged from a volcanic eruption, solidifies quickly, leading to minimal to no crystal formation.

The actual sort of lava accountable for the formation of obsidian is known as felsic lava. This sort of lava is characterised by its abundance of light-weight components equivalent to oxygen, potassium, sodium, silicon, and aluminum. The presence of silica inside the lava leads to a excessive viscosity, which in flip restricts the diffusion of atoms inside the lava.

This phenomenon of atomic diffusion units in movement the preliminary stage of mineral crystal formation, generally known as nucleation. Because the lava cools at a fast fee, it transforms into obsidian, a chic and natural volcanic glass. This course of is a results of the swift cooling interval, which creates a glassy texture with no crystalline construction. This pure incidence is an aesthetically pleasing consequence of the geological exercise of volcanic eruptions.

Obsidian possesses a uncommon high quality of being akin to a mineral but not totally one genuinely, because it constitutes glass and never a crystalline substance. This distinctive attribute units it other than different minerals, standing out as its defining function. The extremely polished, shiny look of pure obsidian is the results of a glassy texture, reflecting gentle brilliantly as its floor gleams with pleasure.

Nonetheless, the colour of obsidian varies because it exists in numerous types, presenting itself in several hues, colours, and textures depending on the presence of impurities like iron or magnesium inside the lava. This could produce shades of darkish inexperienced, brown, or black, which can seem mottled or streaked, including an inventive aptitude to the mineral’s look.

In weapons, pure obsidian showcases its black and glossy exterior, harking back to midnight and mysterious class. This additional enhances the mineral’s attract and makes it an intriguing gemstone wanted by many.

Use of obsidian from prehistoric period to the trendy age

In Neolithic instances, trepanation – or drilling a gap into the cranium – was considered a remedy for every little thing from epilepsy to migraines. It might even have been a type of emergency surgical procedure for battle wounds. However whereas there’s still conjecture about the true causes behind the mysterious process, what is thought is that the implement typically used to hold out the primitive surgical procedure was constructed from one of many sharpest substances present in nature: obsidian.

Obsidian can produce reducing edges many instances finer than even one of the best metal scalpels. At 30 angstroms – a unit of measurement equal to 1 hundred millionth of a centimeter – an obsidian scalpel can rival diamond within the fineness of its edge.

When you think about that almost all family razor blades are 300 to 600 angstroms, obsidian can nonetheless lower it with the sharpest supplies nanotechnology can produce. Even right now, a small number of surgeons are utilizing this historic know-how (although the US FDA has not but permitted using obsidian blades in surgical procedure on people because of their brittle nature and better danger of breaking in comparison with conventional metal scalpel blades) to hold out nice incisions that they are saying heal with minimal scarring.

In different phrases, obsidian knives are so sharp they lower on a mobile stage. Because of this, when used within the medical subject, incisions made with the blade heal sooner with much less scarring. And most significantly, they keep sharp even after being buried within the floor for 1000’s of years. Its exceptional use reminding us that the oldest strategies of workmanship nonetheless have a spot in our fashionable world.

How can obsidian be extra easy and sharp than honed metal?

Metal is nearly all the time composed of very many separate crystals (microscopic grains), quite than one massive one. When metal fractures, it usually fractures alongside the uneven joins between separate crystals. Obsidian incorporates nearly no crystals massive sufficient to have an effect on the fabric’s fracture properties and it is for that reason it breaks easily and sharply. As a result of obsidian lacks crystals, it doesn’t break alongside strains of weak spot within the materials, it simply fractures alongside the strains of the stress that triggered the fracture.

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Microscopic construction of ferritic metal with approx. 0.1 % Carbon, etched with Nital. The carbon is primarily current within the type of cementite and as a low proportion of pearlite between the ferritic grains. The distinction between iron and metal is just that iron is a component and metal, in its most simple type, is an alloy of iron and carbon. © Struers / Fair Use
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Scanning electron micrographs of various obsidian samples. © Researchgate / Fair Use

That is additionally why obsidian and related supplies present conchoidal fractures. If you have a look at the form of some fractured obsidian, you’re looking on the form of the shockwave that cracked it. If you have a look at the form of some fractured metal, you’re looking partly on the form of the shockwave that fractured it, however largely on the strains of weak spot between the metal’s imperfections and the joins between it’s crystals.

Whether it is attainable to sharpen metal delicately sufficient to not trigger fractures, the slightest power can be sufficient to knock unsupported crystals misplaced. Should you sharpen metal in order that it’s edge is thinner than it’s crystal measurement, then there’s not a lot holding the sting crystals in place as they’re not inter-locked. Subsequently, it’s doubtless by no means attainable.


As we replicate upon the exceptional sturdiness and sharpness of obsidian, we’re left to surprise on the enduring legacy of our historic ancestors. From the Mayan Indians to the Stone Age spear hunters, the exceptional intelligence and innovation of our forebears is clear in using such a hanging and efficient instrument.

Right this moment, we proceed to depend on obsidian as a priceless useful resource, marveling at its means to take care of a innovative far superior to even probably the most superior metal blades. As we honor the ingenuity of those that got here earlier than us, we’re additionally reminded of the significance of trying to the previous for steerage, inspiration, and the instruments we have to form a greater future.

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