Made of flint, the ancient knives are about the size and shape of a quarter. But these puny bits of stone have two razor-sharp edges and two dull edges. That made them easy to hold between two fingers and safe to wield close to the mouth, says Tel-Aviv University's Ran Barkai, leader of the team that made the finding.
The miniature knives were the Stone Age equivalent of disposable tableware. They would've been used for a short time and then tossed aside, because they couldn't hold an edge, says the University of Pennsylvania's Harold Dibble, who has studied miniature stone tools from another archaeological site.
The idea that these utensils were used for eating "makes perfect sense," he says.
Procuring this mini-cutlery was almost as easy as running out to the supermarket. An early human who needed a steak knife at dinner had only to grab a stone, often a discarded tool, and tap it just so. (Barkai calls it "recycling.")
Barkai's team found marks on the tiny utensils showing they had made delicate cuts through soft meat, rather than hacking through bone.
Barkai also reproduced the mini-knives himself from stones he found in the cave. His colleague Cristina Lemorini of the University of Roma-La Sapienza then tested Barkai's replicas by cutting up a sheep carcass. The 21st-century versions easily sliced through muscles, skin and tendons.
Adding to the scientists' suspicion that the knives were used while eating, a large concentration of them was found around a central fireplace containing burned animal bones. Previous research has shown that the cave's early humans, known as hominids in scientific jargon, cooked their meat. They mostly ate deer but also dined on the odd horse or rhinoceros.
"These hominids were barbecuing ... and then maybe eating the cooked meat while sitting around the fire," Barkai says.
The finding will be published in the September issue of the journal Antiquity.