The History Of Knives

Once upon a time (the way that all good stories should start), there was rock, made of flint – and that was the beginning of the knife with a cutting edge that we know today.

Knives are after all utilitarian – they are made for certain jobs, primarily cutting. Of course, knives have been used for a variety of other tasks such as the preparation of shelter and the making and production of clothing. Even transport has been influenced by knives (think of the sleds made from a hide that has been dragged by both human beings and animals).

In fact, the knife, along with the ability to make fire at will is probably at the very foundation of our evolution towards modern day society.

So where did it all begin? According to most anthropologists, the origin of the knife can be traced to Africa – the cradle of humankind. The rift valley of East Africa is where scientists have found evidence of tool making from the dawn of the modern era. It is here that tool making by Australopithecus, the ancestor of modern man has been discovered. The discoveries include the earliest evidence of tool use – including flint knives.

As man began to spread across the face of the earth and the science of ore refinement became more widespread a rapid evolution in the materials used for the production of knives took place. First bronze knives were the state of the art, however, they were soft, and corrosion was an ongoing problem. As centuries passed, iron and then steel became the materials of choice for the production of knives. These materials were far superior to their bronze counterparts. They were stronger and kept a better edge. Soon, an iron knife was a symbol of prestige and allowed empires such as the Greek and Roman to expand to encompass the known world through force of superior military arms.

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weapon of warThis domination of the known world was a direct result of superior metallurgy and research. From a utensil that was primarily used for eating, the knife now grew in both size and complexity. It had now become a weapon of war. Swords were used by the soldier class, but even the richer class were carrying duel use knives in Europe.

Nobles were now carrying knives made from steel which were used for both dining and protection. These sorts of knives were important status symbols due to the fact that it was extremely rare that a visitor would be provided with any eating utensils whatsoever – only the rich would be able to show their wealth through the ownership of a fine steel knife.

Modern day knives owe their multiple uses to France. It was during the period in the 1630’s when French Cardinal Richelieu was ascendance that modern table knives became popular. The Cardinal abhorred the style of using sharp knives to eat with and his influence led to the adoption of the blunt ‘table knife’. The popularity of the four-tined fork in the United States during the 1900’s also contributed to the adoption of the table knife.

The knives that we today use in table settings and for recreational use are the result of the invention of stainless steel in the early 20th century. It is this invention that has made modern day knives not only durable but also within the budgets of almost every single person on the face of the Earth.

In the years to come, we will no doubt be introduced to many more innovations that will revolutionize the humble knife. However, it will always stay true to purpose. It is, in essence, a cutting instrument that bears a striking resemblance to the flint instruments that our forefathers used on the plains of Africa – that much has not changed.

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    Jeffrey Hoffman

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