Friday Night, Time to Knap

Yesterday, my friend Avery and I went flint knapping outside of the anthro building. For those who aren’t anthro majors/hill people, flint (or stone) knapping is the process of taking a large chunk of rock and turning it into a smaller, hopefully tool-like chunk of rock. Hobbyists use it to make arrowheads, which they exchange at “knap ins,” which are a thing that I am not even making up. The video above shows some of the gear required and the general strangeness of the process–if you see a giant chunk of bone on the table when he’s talking, that’s because it’s a moose bone that he makes stone tools with.

The professor above–who was a remarkably good sport about two undergrads showing up and demanding teaching, essentially–was helping us yesterday. He studies stone knapping techniques in the paleolithic era. Human stone tools from digs show an increase in complexity the nearer the dig gets to the present day, from this, to this, to this. The professor’s research (and the reason he was sitting around flint knapping on a Friday to begin with) is on what stone tools show us about the cognative abilities of the people who made them. He does this by scanning folks’ brains as they make stone tools.

It turns out that novices and skilled tool-makers light up different areas of their brains, and that the simpler tool styles (the monofacial ones, which can cut but are not great for chopping) light up older parts of the brain than more complicated tools. The question is whether advances in tool complexity represent the evolution of that more recent brain matter–they couldn’t make the tools until they had the ability to learn, visualize appropriately, and figure out some pretty complicated practical physics.

So Avery and I tried to make something. We tried to teach ourselves to stone knap last year, after seeing a video of Bruce Bradley. The thing that professors don’t tell you as much is that he’s pretty much the best flint knapper in this country, and despite how easy he makes it look it’s really hard. When we tried on our own, we were working with low-quality rock and no clue what we were doing, and wound up using the same technique to make blades as chimps have been shown to: we threw them at the ground until they shattered into smaller pieces. Yesterday, we fared a little better. Here’s what Avery made:

Though it doesn’t look like much, the scraper came from a much larger piece of flint, and is much better than what we got the first time. We’ll be going back next week, so hopefully I can try my hand at sucking a little less at banging rocks together.


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