Tool-making in the Stone Age

Paleolithic weapons factory was a rich source of obsidian tools from 1.4 million years ago

(Read the article on one page)

Scientists call Mount Arteni in Armenia, an extinct volcano that has rich deposits of obsidian, a Stone Age weapons factory. They say from about 1.4 million years, Homo erectus people and later Homo sapiens made obsidian tools there numbering in the millions.

 “I have little doubt that members of the genus Homo were using Armenian obsidians for as long as both were around,” Ellery Frahm of the University of Minnesota told National Geographic .

Homo erectus fossils were found in 2013 relatively close by, in Georgia. Scientists said these were the earliest human fossils found outside of East Africa, dating back 1.8 million years.


Armenian archaeologist Boris Gasparyan told National Geographic Mount Arteni was a gigantic open-air workshop where innumerable arrowheads, spearheads, hand axes, blades, scrapers and chisels were made. These tools circulated through an exchange route that predate by millennia the oldest known formal trade activity.

Mount Arteni, an volcano and source of obsidian for tools for hundreds of thousands of years

Mount Arteni, an volcano and source of obsidian for tools for hundreds of thousands of years (WOWARMENIA/ Wikimedia Commons )

“Equipped with new technology that can precisely identify the origin of obsidian tools—even down to a single lava vein in a specific volcano—scientists have come to believe that Arteni was a central component in what amounts to a far-reaching Paleolithic arms industry. Its products have been traced north over the Caucasus to present-day Ukraine and west across Anatolia to the Aegean, almost 1,600 miles away,” wrote Frank Viviano in the National Geographic article.

“Estimates of Arteni’s output are staggering. Active production is thought to date back to the Lower Stone Age, when the region’s first skilled artisans were early Neanderthals. Their successors mined the same materials up to 1000 B.C.E. Gasparyan and his Armenian associates, along with their American, Japanese, and European collaborators, have harvested thousands of Paleolithic tools at Arteni and other local sites.”

5,000-year-old obsidian tools from the Greek Cyclades islands

5,000-year-old obsidian tools from the Greek Cyclades islands (Zde/ Wikimedia Commons )

Gasparayan said that through the ages people, both pre- Homo sapiens and sapiens, produced millions of tools at Mount Arteni. He said it is impossible to count the number.

Because Armenia was a Soviet satellite, archaeology work stopped for a time near the end of the collapse of Communism in Europe. But by 2011, Frahm said, archaeologists were finding 500 pieces of worked obsidian per day in Armenia.

They know the obsidian found more than a thousand miles away is from Arteni from chemical traces in the mineral. Scientists can even tell which seam the stone came from.

Using a portable x-ray fluorescence instrument about the size of a cordless drill, Gasparyan, Frahm and their colleagues analyze a tool’s chemical composition in about 10 seconds without crushing it.

Unworked obsidian from Belgium

Unworked obsidian from Belgium (Thomas Quine/ Flickr)

Obsidian was great for Stone Age weapons and tools. It is like glass and fractures to make extremely sharp edges. Modern people have even experimented with it for use in surgical scalpels. “But it is rarely found in Europe and Western Asia, with the notable exception of Armenia. In a land smaller than the state of Maryland, more than a dozen volcanoes hold significant obsidian deposits,” National Geographic said.

“Combine that with the fact that the Caucasus was among the main land bridges of early human migration, and the wide circulation of obsidian tools from Armenia assumes enormous significance. The Eurasian routes plied by Paleolithic obsidian are remarkably similar to those of Hellenistic and Medieval trade empires over 3,000 centuries later, including portions of the celebrated Silk Road, according to Gasparyan. But evidence is growing that those networks themselves are a recent chapter in the larger saga.”

Whether the obsidian and other stone tools in Stone Age times were used as weapons against other people or mostly or solely to kill wild game is the subject of much speculation among archaeologists, anthropologists and psychologists. Some scholars say humans are innately violent and speculate they were killing and making war from the beginning. But others have found little evidence of violence in prehistoric human fossils and rock art. It has been speculated that once humans settled down in communities, they had land and resources of their own that may have been coveted by others, and war resulted.

Featured image: Tool-making in the Stone Age ( Wikimedia Commons )

By Mark Miller

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Human Origins

Ancient Technology

The Lycurgus Cup.
A strange chalice made its way into the British Museum’s collection in the 1950s. It is a 1,600-year-old jade green Roman artifact called the Lycurgus Cup. The image on the chalice is an iconic scene with King Lycurgus of Thrace...

Ancient Places

The highly-decorated tomb is built in a distinctive ‘L’ shape
A mysterious ancient tomb with “unusual and rare” wall paintings has been discovered in Egypt. Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Enany told BBC reporters the discovery of a 4,400-year-old tomb found during excavation work in Giza’s western cemetery “likely belonged to Hetpet, a priestess to Hathor, the goddess of fertility, who assisted women in childbirth.”

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article