The Lost Art of Aztec Prismatic Blades

The Lost Art of Aztec Prismatic Blades

Toolsday banner

Start talking about flintknapping, and most people think first of arrowheads or other projectile points. Though made using essentially the same basic techniques, a prismatic blade is a very different animal. In the archaeological record, prismatic blades appear as long, thin flakes of stone, usually having two parallel cutting edges and a trapezoidal or triangular cross-section.

Prismatic blades photographed by Joshua Ream
Photo: Joshua Ream,

Though prismatic blades have been made in many different types of stone, by cultures all over the world, the technology arguably reached its height in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations like the Maya and Aztec, which enjoyed access to abundant supplies of natural obsidian. These cultures produced and traded prismatic blades on an industrial scale, for use both as utilitarian cutting tools and in the construction of elaborate hafted weapons–like the Aztec maquahuitl and tepoztopilli–featuring long, continuous, razor-sharp edges made by fixing prismatic blades side-by-side into wooden handles using natural adhesives.


A few modern flintknappers make prismatic blades, but the leading light (online, at least) is probably Californian Jim Winn, aka “paleomanjim.” Jim’s YouTube channel is a deep, rich vein of hands-on how-to information for many aspects of flintknapping. For those interested in prismatic blades, particularly, I recommend Jim’s four-part series from 2012:

Another great resource, for those with more of an intellectual interest, is Pathways to Prismatic Blades: A Study in Mesoamerican Obsidian Core-Blade Technology, a 2002 compilation of academic writings from a dozen specialists published through UCLA’s Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, and edited by anthropologists Kenneth Hirth and Bradford Andrews. The prismatic blade reduction diagram in the slideshow above is a mash-up of Andrews’ illustrations 1.1 and 1.2 from this book.

12 thoughts on “The Lost Art of Aztec Prismatic Blades

  1. ironleg says:

    While I guess it would have still been effective, That SpikeTV one looks more like a chunk of a pallet with broken beer bottle chunks in it.

    1. Gareth Branwyn says:

      I saw that Deadliest Warrior episode and their crudely constructed maquahutil was devastating. They hung a side of beef (if I remember correctly) and sliced it in half in just a few whacks. Imagine what a real one would do in the hands of a skilled warrior.

    2. Sean Michael Ragan says:

      Yeah, I mean it would hurt, certainly. =) But it seems like it would be more of a spiked club than an effective cutting weapon. That whole episode is actually pretty cheesy, and I note that, for whatever reasons, it is one of only two episodes in Season 2 that is not available for viewing on the SpikeTV website. They use their lousy maquahuitl to hack through a ballistic gelatin horse head, which is a silly test, to begin with. And it doesn’t do a great job. Would love to see some cutting tests done with a more authentic maquahuitl.

      1. Gareth Branwyn says:

        Maybe that’s a different show then, ’cause I’m pretty sure the one I saw was a side of beef and it cut it pretty cleanly in half with maybe three hacks. I think what I saw may have been a History channel show, I believe the same weapons program where they demonstrated the relative merits of a medieval broadsword and a samurai sword.

        1. Gareth Branwyn says:

          Oh, yeah, on this same episode, they also showed how an Atlatl was used.

  2. Sean Michael Ragan says:

    Hi, I’m a representative of Aztechnologies…

Comments are closed.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

View more articles by Sean Michael Ragan
Maker Faire Bay Area 2023 - Mare Island, CA

Escape to an island of imagination + innovation as Maker Faire Bay Area returns for its 15th iteration!

Buy Tickets today! SAVE 15% and lock-in your preferred date(s).