Protected by a lone, sparsely populated stand of trees amid a
sun-bleached field a group of students and parent volunteers are eyeing both my buckskins and the assemblage of stones, sticks, nuts, and other materials that form the basis of today’s lesson. Soon, they’ll be using their hands to create string from sticks, drill holes in stones with sticks, create beads from stones and nuts, and attempt to create fire by friction. The assembled learners will also practice timeless hunting technologies including: rabbit sticks, hand spears, hoop and pole game, spear throwers, and bow and arrow.
and parent olunteers are eyeing both my buckskins and the assemblage of stones, sticks, nuts, and other materials that form the basis of today’s lesson. Soon, they’ll be using their hands to create string from sticks, drill holes in stones with sticks, create beads from stones and nuts, and attempt to create fire by friction. The assembled learners will also practice timeless hunting technologies including: rabbit sticks, hand spears, hoop and pole game, spear throwers, and bow and arrow.
What they are experiencing is a hands-on educational program in paleo-technologies or hunter/gatherer living skills. Technologies in this sense are defined as anything we as humans do to alter or change the natural environment in order to create something that we either need or want. In so doing, we are using the two primary tools that we are born with (our hands and minds) in order to produce all else that we require. We need to do this because, unlike most of the other animals that live on this Earth, we're not born with fur to keep us warm, sharp claws and teeth to either hunt or defend ourselves with, or the innate ability to run faster than our predators.
Instead, we're startlingly vulnerable in contrast to our primacy on this planet. We're technologically dependent creatures who must wear clothing and use fire to stay warm. We create sharp cutting edges to harvest our food, and design other tools to satisfy other needs. We've been that way for a very, very long time: our ancestors began using fire over 1.4 million years ago and, in doing so, began a long lineage of needing and using "fire" (the stored energy of the sun), not just for warmth, but to protect us from predators, create light at night, cook our food, entertain us, and produce its many useful by-products.
Fire is among the oldest examples of the many roots of the "tree" of technology, but there are numerous others. The knowledge of how to extract pliable fibers from the bark and leaves of plants and the ability to twist those fibers into cord or twine are essential to the whole world of fiber arts, including the rope that we buy at the hardware store and the clothing that we wear today.
Stringmaking is a means by which we literally tie our world together. At the same time, it also incorporates concepts of physics and geometry. The bound energy caught in the twisting fibers results in a secondary twist which binds the first two elements together into one "string" and the critical 45° angle which allows them to ply together evenly demonstrates the ideas of obtuse and acute angles. If the angle is too obtuse, the energy is unable to flow forward. If the angle is too acute, the energy flows forward too quickly and the resulting string is loose, undefined & weak. A few years ago, a fourth-grade teacher was overjoyed to hear one of her students involved in the stringmaking process exclaim "Hey! That’s an acute angle.” The class had recently been learning about angles in geometry and that the student was able to apply the concept and vocabulary unexpectedly to something that he was physically experiencing made us all realize, once again, just how much the different sciences and disciplines interrelate. This string making method can also be a group endeavor and therefore fosters cooperation and interdependence.
Another favorite activity is using sticks to drill holes in stone. This simple description often makes people wonder how it’s even possible? In this case, we’re using a very soft soapstone and the drills are made of willow and bamboo. The bamboo "drill bit" is just hard enough to bore a hole in the soft soapstone. The "hand drilling" technique employed can be used to drill a hole in virtually anything and is also practice for hand drill friction fire making; one skill leading to the next like structured coursework. Creating fire using a hand drill is a difficult skill to learn but practicing by drilling holes in stones is a good way to start. The beads that are produced are then ground and shaped on abrasive stones, polished with a natural sandpaper which is a piece of the plant Giant Horsetail (Equisetum spp.), and oiled with fat from pine nut meat, which is also used to make a different type of bead. This seemingly simple project actually touches on a whole series of technologies that can also be employed to shape harder stones, bone, antler, and wood. Recently, I have been offering this necklace making activity at local fairs and events. Parents and onlookers often comment on how the participants (kids and adults alike) are so naturally drawn to sit down, ground themselves, and get absorbed into creating something unique and beautiful, by hand, using stones and sticks as their tools.
By practicing and exploring these ancient technologies we are strengthening the base of the tree upon which we all depend. In our modern-day world, most humans live up in the branches and canopy of this tree never realizing how everything that surrounds us came to be, but any technology used today can be traced back down the trunk and into the root from which it evolved. By exploring these concepts, understanding the processes, and using their hands and minds to create something tangible and creative, these kids are also finding a deeper understanding and appreciation for something which just a few generations ago was commonplace, i.e. the satisfaction that comes from having made something for oneself, by oneself, with one's own hands, from materials found in the surrounding environment. Knowledge gained in this fashion is not fleeting or easily forgotten, but instead forges a strong & lasting memory.
is a paleo-technologist, educator & author who has been practicing, teaching & demonstrating ancient living skills for the few decades years through her business Paleotechnics. She lives in Mendocino County and offers a variety of workshops and programs for fairs, museums and schools all around Northern California.