Archive for December, 2011

Editor’s note: I know I’m using racism incorrectly here because it is not directed at any specific “race” but I was looking for a word that carries the right feeling and “prejudice” doesn’t seem to do it justice.  Any suggestions are welcome.

I think everyone is aware of the atrocities indigenous cultures have faced and continue to face but most people aren’t aware of a very subtle but present prejudice towards the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.  I’d estimate that I see this prejudice in about 99% of people that I know.  Hunter-gatherers have been portrayed as savages, cavemen, dirty and primitive in their philosophy and worldview so its no wonder that many people still hold some level of this image in their heads when they think of “primitive” people.  What is so unfortunate is that many of the benefits of a primitive lifestyle are lost due to this level of racism.  And it seems to be taking for-EVER for society to come around to some of those benefits.  Barefoot running for example.  Our feet evolved to run without shoes on – why would anything else work better?  Children evolved to learn by having adventures outside, playing games with their friends and imitating their parents – how could sitting at a desk for 18 years possibly be better?

I’m going to take a strong stance here and say that a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is the best way to live and in fact the only way we can live on earth in a balanced way.  Our modern lives create 1 improvement and with it, 10 new problems.  I don’t see any sign of that changing.  Nature kept us healthy, strong and happy.  It made us who we are today but now we think that we are smarter than nature and can make ourselves healthy and happy while at the same time keeping the earth in balance.  We may be smart enough to do this but we are in no way wise enough, mature enough or self-sacrificing enough to pull that off.  And why do we even want to?  Nature does everything for us for free.  Hunter-gather cultures often only worked for a few hours a day.  And their “work” was hunting, fishing, crafting, and land management.  The rest of their time could be spent playing with kids or planning ceremonies.  Not to mention that cancer did not exist in primitive societies, suicide was virtually unheard of, and obesity was basically impossible.

Most people think hunter-gatherers were always at the brink of starvation.  Not true.  Most people are horrendously misinformed about hunter-gatherer lifestyle.  Let me just tell you that in my 10 years of researching hunter-gatherers, learning their skills, and experiencing their lifestyle, that there is no better way to live.  They are clean, brilliant, open, loving and wise people who constantly surprise their visiting researchers with their complex understanding of life and their overall health and maturity.  Why wouldn’t they?  Those people are still living the way that we all evolved to live, which means that they are living at their maximum potential as a human being.  We will never match that potential in modern society.  At least I don’t see any sign of it happening.  Especially if we continue to disregard the benefits of the primitive lifestyle.

One other note is that primitive people did not destroy their ecosystem then move on to a new one, repeating the cycle.  This method of survival did not serve them.  They were masters of land management using fire and other techniques to create renewable food abundance for themselves and the animals that they hunted.  Read Tending the Wild by M. Kat Anderson if you want to be blown away by examples of indigenous land management .

You might be curious as to why I’m not living a primitive life if I’m “so into it”.  Well, I guess its because I don’t have a tribe to do it with.  Living alone in the woods is not something I’m interested in long-term.  I love my family and friends – most of whom have no interest in that lifestyle.  Plus its illegal which complicates things.  As much as possible I try to integrate aspects of primitive living into my modern life and for now I guess that will have to do.

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There’s not really a word for making something without the use of any modern tools.  In primitive skills communities people say you’re doing it “abo” (short for aboriginal) if you aren’t using modern tools.  But that still isn’t very clear because sometimes people are “abo” flint knappers, using only antler and hammerstones but they are using all sorts of grinders and files to shape the antler.  I think we need a term that describes something that has never been touched by modern tools.  I guess there’s not a very high demand for this word in our current culture.  Not many people have ever made something with no assistance from modern tools – have you?  I’m a survivalist/primitive skills guy and even I have only made a couple things totally “abo”.  I’m amazed at how rare that is.  For the vast majority of our time on earth we were all making everything without any help from modern tools.

I finished my abo axe which technically is a “celt” by the way the stone is wedged into the handle.  I couldn’t wait for my green handle to dry so I went and made one out of a dry piece of oak.  Several pros and cons to working with dry wood over green:

1. Green wood is softer and much easier to work which is a huge help when using stone-age tools.

2. Green wood will shrink and warp as it dries – dry wood won’t.

3. Green wood has to dry which takes a long time and it might crack as it dries – dry wood won’t.

4. When using fire for shaping, green wood can pop and crack – dry wood won’t.

5. Finding a dry stick that is the right size, shape and has no rot can be very difficult or impossible in some environments.

In this situation I was able to make a handle with the dry oak pretty quickly and put it right to use.  I had to move to a bigger antler chisel to knock out the hole but otherwise, everything went pretty smoothly.

Chopping through dry oak with a hand ax is difficult and time consuming.

My little antler chisel that worked on green wood doesn’t cut it on the seasoned oak. I upgraded to a larger one and it worked great.

I like to chisel a bit then scrape out the chunks with a chert knife.

All the way through!

A “celt” works by wedging the stone on the top and bottom. If the sides touch it will split the handle when you’re chopping. When the stone is wedged correctly its extremely durable. Imagine trying to rip a stick in half by pulling on it from the ends…

With use the stone will get polished and shiny.

I split off the sides with the antler chisel to help thin it down. Next step is using fire for smoothing and final shaping.

I used the fire to char the wood then scraped off the burnt areas with a chert knife. This method is very efficient. I was able to shape the handle exactly how I wanted very quickly.

Smoothing out and thining down…


This is a California walnut tree that I’ve selected to make a bow out of. Time to test out the celt…

Chopping through the green wood easily.

In about 15 minutes I was able to cut down the tree and cut it to length. I also got a possible adz handle out of a branch further up on the tree. The celt worked great and shows virtually no wear.

Now its time to let the branch dry out nice and slow.  I’ll seal the ends with clay and show the process of making it into a bow in later posts.  Its so simple but in some ways feels like the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life – making this ax from nothing and using it to make a tool that will feed me like its fed all of our ancestors for thousands of years.  I’m typing on this incredible piece of technology but it all began with these two simple things… a stick and a stone.

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Since I haven’t posted in a while I thought I’d share a few projects I’m working on.  In my opinion, the whole point of doing primitive (or natural) skills is to do things the way we did them a long time ago.  I think the skills were a part of us for so long that they are imbedded in our hard-wiring and as a result, give us tremendous joy and satisfaction – like remembering what we were meant to do.  Unfortunately, I, like a lot of primitive skills people don’t do the skills totally primitively.  That’s because its really convenient to use metal tools to get the job done faster.  In the past few months I’ve made the commitment to do everything as primitively as I possibly can and in the process it has been a real eye opener.  The things I used to do quickly now take longer and aren’t as pretty BUT they are also about 10 times more fun to do.  Its extremely satisfying making things totally from scratch and figuring out all of the little tricks our ancestors used to get by with out metal for thousands of years.  I realize that this is why I got into primitive skills to begin with – to do things the way we did them a  long time ago.  I wish I hadn’t gotten distracted by the ease and convenience of modern tools for the past 10 years but at least I’m back on track now.

One project that I’m working on is to shoot a deer from nothing.  This means I’ll have to make a bow, bowstring, and arrows from scratch…. which means I’ll have to make an ax and adz from scratch.  So far the ax is coming along nicely.  Once the handle is dry, I’ll finish it and post the final pictures.

To shape an ax head you first “peck” it  with a flint cobble…

…then you grind it on a sand stone slab in a wet slurry of sand and flint flakes.

Next I cut a branch for the handle using a rough hand ax knapped with a hammerstone.

The one on the left is the ax handle, on the right is the mallet that I’ll use to chisel in the hole for the ax head. By far the most useful tool in my abo work is this sandstone slab. (By the way – anyone want to come crack some acorns??)

To chisel the hole I had to make an antler chisel. I cut off this tine using a chert blade that I roughed out with a hammerstone.

In no time I was able to grind an edge on the chisel using the sandstone slab.

Now its just a matter of chiseling out the hole. The antler worked great!

One of the biggest challenges to primitive wood working is keeping the wood from cracking as it dries. I’ve found that coating it in clay does the trick. I also wrapped the ends with wet rawhide which shrinks tight as it dries. I’m going to let the ax handle dry more before I start using it.

Flint knapping without the use of copper has been a challenge but very rewarding.

Banded obsidian.

I found a clay deposit out in the desert that appears to be high quality. I’m going to test it on this little pot before I make bigger ones.

Future ax and adz heads.

This is what it looks like when a branch is cut with a stone ax

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