MAKE THE TOOLS
THAT MADE YOU
Flintknappers reveal our technological origins, one chip at a time.
HANDMADE TOOLS ARE TWO MILLION YEARS
old. Modern humans are just 200,000 years old.
Before we humans came along, our Stone Age ancestors spent 1,800,000 years making tools out of rocks.
It follows that you, a modern human, have evolved
superb eyes and hands for that job. If you invest some
thought and effort, you’ll find that you can make
much better Stone Age tools than a Stone Age
Genuine Stone Agers often had to trudge
dozens of miles to dig up flint with prehistoric
shovels of antler and bone. Today’s sophisticated stone maker can order rock supplies
shipped by FedEx. You can even have stone
neatly prepared for you into arrowhead-sized blanks, so you can concentrate on the
fun part of stonework, which is “knapping.”
Top-class stone hackers give public
classes and shoot how-to videos. They call
themselves “master knappers” and hang
out with museum curators and archaeologists.
At this point, the abo knapper has created a
Stone Age throwing spear. After his first kill, he’s
got sinew, blood glue, a loincloth, bone tools, a
canteen, some rawhide sandals, and basically everything he needs besides a cave-art gallery.
Entrepreneurial Market Knappers
The second school is referred to as “market
knapping.” Here you find the guys who make
modern arrowheads, stone knives, and custom spearheads for the joy of it and for
the tourist trade. These guys tend to be
congenial folklorists, hobby hunters, and local
The Purist Approach
There are basically three schools of
knapping. The first, and most honored, is
“abo knapping” — the purist approach
that uses only natural, prehistoric tools
and techniques. The high concept is to re-create the Stone Age lifestyle with a scholarly
understanding of prehistoric skills.
An ideal abo knapper would thrive if
dropped naked in a wilderness. He would
find a suitably brittle rock and crack it
open with a cobble — this cracking process
is referred to as “spalling.”
Then he would knock long shards from the
freshly cracked edge (known as “percussion
flaking”) and sharpen and refine the edges by
peeling and prying off bits with a pointy piece of
bone — called “pressure flaking.” He would then
smooth out a wooden stick, carefully notch the
stone blade, and haft that into the tip.
The Flintknapping Avant-Garde
The members of the last and rarest school
of knappers have a different perspective:
they use engineering terms like “
conchoidal fracture” and are into high-performance
stonework. They will knap most anything,
including semiprecious stones, broken pop
bottles, busted toilet bowls, telephone insulators, and the billets of purified silica used to
make fiber-optic cables. These avant-gard-ists tend to be jewelers and rock hounds.
Not for the Weak
Knapping is serious, hands-on work. It
takes patience and some muscle in the
shoulders and forearms, and it requires
vigorous pounding, prying, and chipping
on brittle, glassy materials that can pop
off and fly at high velocities. Assuming
that you preserve your eyesight (always a
great idea), you’ll still have to manage the
safety of your fingers and your feet. If you
wonder whether stone weapons hurt, just
ask a mammoth.
Photograph courtesy of Piltdown Productions, Lynchburg, VA
Bruce Sterling ( email@example.com) is a science fiction
writer and part-time design professor.
118 Make: Volume 01