The Four Year Old Flintknapper- More Thoughts on Teaching Children Primitive Skills

This post is a follow-up- or perhaps a continuation- of the post titled The Four Year Old Archaeologist. In this post I discuss how I have been teaching my son about lithic technology- stone tools- and how to make his own. For more on teaching primitive skills to young children, see the Wilderness Kids pages on the Desert Explorer website. Also see our Primitive Skills pages for explanations and introductions to some of the skills.

My son Nicolai and I make it a point to practice some form of primitive skills at least once a week.   We build countless fires, have recently spent time tracking many coyotes, identify useful plants wherever we go, throw sticks and spears, and now have begun flintknapping together.

I introduced Nicolai to stone tools- ancient ones and those I had fashioned- when he was about two years old.  I showed him points, explained how they were made, and what they were used for.  On our frequent trips to the desert I would pick up any lithics I found- a scraper, part of a point, a core, and lots of debitage (the smaller pieces left behind during the tool making process)- and let him hold them.  We even visited and camped near a quarry sight where I explained the process of curation of raw material and how stone found in one location can be carried to other locations hundreds of miles away.  Finally,  I carefully explained the processes  involved in making each piece of debitage or stone tool he was holding, giving him an overview of the flintknapping process as follows.

The Process of Making a Tool

First you find a cobble- a suitable looking piece of the raw material.  You remove the cortex (the weathered exterior surface) from the cobble by striking it with another cobble called a hammerstone, of a different material.  The best hammerstones are river cobbles; elongated, rounded, with smooth surfaces.  You find an appropriate looking surface on the piece of raw material, called the platform, and strike away.  The idea is to remove long flakes from the core that can be used to make points, scrapers, blades, or numerous other stone tools using more refined techniques and other flintknapping tools such as a deer antler pressure flaker.

Beyond the technical description of how a tool was made, I include in my explanations things like why we found the piece where we did- deposited in the bed of a wash by moving water for example.  I also explain my thoughts on why the people who made the piece chose that location to use it- maybe they chose a wooded hillside that had a good view of a pocket of water below, and waited for deer to come and drink there.  I talk about why the toolmaker may have left the tool- it may have been stuck in a wounded animal that they could not catch that later died in the area.  Or it may have broken during use, striking a rock or the bone of a target, and was then discarded. If it was a flake tool or a scraper, it may have been more of an expedient tool, made, used and discarded in place.

Now when Nicolai finds a flake he tells me about it.  He can explain the flintknapping process, and has a solid grasp of how the various tools were used. Now we are beginning to discuss the process in more depth, differentiating between the different flake types- primary, secondary and tertiary flakes- and investigating the actual reduction process which takes place during tool manufacture.

Making Our Own Stone Tools

At home in our back yard primitive camp Nicolai has watched me work away at large pieces of obsidian, making smaller pieces with a hammerstone.  He has watched closely as I use antler billets and tines to make my blanks into usable tools- blades, scrapers and points.  Now he has begun making his own.

Nicolai arranging his core and getting ready to strike off a flake.

Nicolai arranging his core and getting ready to strike off a flake. He is very serious about the process. Note the safety glasses.

I know that he always pays very close attention when I explain or demonstrate something to him, and when I answer his questions. This is natural for children, and as old as the process of toolmaking itself- the child sitting with the parent or other elder learning the lifeways of his people.  From the very first time Nicolai picked up a core and hammerstone I could tell by his technique that he understood all I told him and had watched me carefully.  From the way he sits, how he looks for the proper platform, how he holds a core in a piece of leather tightly against his leg, to the way he holds and strikes with the hammerstone, he is on his way to becoming at least a functional flintknapper, if not one who shows skill beyond the average level. It may not be long before he is critiquing my stone tools and teaching me new techniques.

For more information on flintknapping and recommended titles on the process, visit the Lithic Technology page on the Desert Explorer website.

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