Thunderstones

In Europe up until the late seventeenth century when ancient stone artifacts such as flint points and hand axes were found in the fields they were called thunderstones and it was assumed that they were produced by lightning.  There were even eye witness accounts of stones falling from the sky during lightning storms or being found where lightning had struck the earth.  There was an assumption based upon the Biblical account in the book of Genesis that humans had learned metallurgy soon after the creation of Adam and Eve.  These stones, also known as ceraunia, were found all over Europe.  Scholars like the Swiss naturalist Konrad Gesner described them in a published account titled De rerum fossilium figuris in 1565 where he referred to one being found after a thunderstorm in Vienna some years earlier.  Local people who found them kept them as talisman that would protect them from lightning.  Thunderstones are mentioned in Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline (IV.ii 258-263) written in 1610 when one of the characters is lamenting the death of the King’s daughter and says,

Fear no more the lightning-flash

Nor th’ all-dreaded thunder-stone.

Fear not slander, censure rash.

Thou hast finish’d joy and moan

All lovers young, all lovers must

Consign to thee, and come to dust

However, there were astute scholars who took note that there were numerous references in ancient history to the use of flint knives, Herodotus mentioned that the Egyptians used flint blades, Livy described the use of flint daggers in warfare and even the Bible made a reference to the use of flint blades for circumcision.  Then, after the discovery of the new world, as accounts and artifacts from the Indian tribes of North and South American began to flow back to Europe, it was apparent they had no metal and were using flint arrowheads and knives.  The first scholar to recognize this evidence and draw the conclusion that people in antiquity manufactured the thunderstones as weapons and tools was Michele Mercati who wrote an account titled, Metallotheca, which he completed in 1593.  He used ethnographic information from the Americas along with information from historical sources and made careful comparisons between the so-called thunderstones and the flint artifacts from the Indians of the New World to demonstrate that the thunderstones were in fact  weapons and tools made by early Europeans.  However his work was not published outside the Vatican library until 1719 so his conclusions were not widely known. None-the-less he was the first to document that thunderstones were not produced by lightning but were the work of humans who existed prior to the use of metal.   By 1723 Laurent de Jussieu wrote a book called On the Origin and Use of Thunderstones that laid the groundwork for comparative archeology by showing a detailed comparison of stone artifacts from primitive cultures now being found in other parts of the world with the stones in the various collections in Europe and concluded that Europe had been inhabited by more primitive peoples who made flint and stone artifacts.

By the early nineteenth century a number of prominent scholars were finding stone tools in association with the bones of animals long extinct.  The evidence of stratigraphy where stone tools were found in layers of earth buried deep below the surface added more credibility.  Yet even then they had little idea what to make of these tools.  They were referred to as antediluvian and Celtic.  The Biblical model of creation and the flood still dominated their thinking.  The bones of elephants, rhinoceros and hippopotamus continued to be found in France and England.  By 1863 Sir Charles Lyell published his work Geological Evidence of the Antiquity of Man which provided overwhelming evidence of the use of the stone tools among ancient inhabitants of Europe.

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