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A microlith is a small stone tool usually made of flint or chert and typically a centimetre or so in length and half a centimetre wide. They were made by humans from around 35,000 to 3,000 years ago, across Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. The microliths were used in spear points and arrowheads.

Microliths are produced from either a small blade (microblade) or a larger blade-like piece of flint by abrupt or truncated retouching, which leaves a very typical piece of waste, called a microburin. The microliths themselves are sufficiently worked so as to be distinguishable from workshop waste or accidents.

Two families of microliths are usually defined: laminar and geometric. An assemblage of microliths can be used to date an archeological site. Laminar microliths are slightly larger, and are associated with the end of the Upper Paleolithic and the beginning of the Epipaleolithic era; geometric microliths are characteristic of the Mesolithic and the Neolithic. Geometric microliths may be triangular, trapezoid or lunate. Microlith production generally declined following the introduction of agriculture (8000 BCE) but continued later in cultures with a deeply rooted hunting tradition.

Regardless of type, microliths were used to form the points of hunting weapons, such as spears and (in later periods) arrows, and other artifacts and are found throughout Africa, Asia and Europe. They were utilised with wood, bone, resin and fiber to form a composite tool or weapon, and traces of wood to which microliths were attached have been found in Sweden, Denmark and England. An average of between six and eighteen microliths may often have been used in one spear or harpoon, but only one or two in an arrow. The shift from earlier larger tools had an advantage. Often the haft of a tool was harder to produce than the point or edge: replacing dull or broken microliths with new easily portable ones was easier than making new hafts or handles.[1]

Types of microlith

Backed edge bladelet

Laminar and non-geometric microliths

Laminar microliths date from at least the Gravettian culture or possibly the start of the Upper Paleolithic era, and they are found all through the Mesolithic and Neolithic eras. "Noailles" burins and micro-gravettes (see § Micro points, below) indicate that the production of microliths had already started in the Gravettian culture.[2] This style of flint working flourished during the Magdalenian period and persisted in numerous Epipaleolithic traditions all around the Mediterranean basin. These microliths are slightly larger than the geometric microliths that followed and were made from the flakes of flint obtained ad hoc from a small nucleus or from a depleted nucleus of flint. They were produced either by percussion or by the application of a variable pressure (although pressure is the best option, this method of producing microliths is complicated and was not the most commonly used technique).[3]

Truncated blade

There are three basic types of laminar microlith. The truncated blade type can be divided into a number of sub-types depending on the position of the truncation (for example, oblique, square or double) and according to its form, for example, concave or convex. "Raclette scrapers" are notable for their particular form, being blades or flakes whose edges have been sharply retouched until they are semicircular or even shapeless. Raclettes are indefinite cultural indicators, as they appear from the Upper Paleolithic through to the Neolithic.