By Geoffrey Guy
While steel tools are generally considered essential if you are heading outdoors nowadays, it’s also useful to remember that our ancestors once had to make do with tools of stone, bone, and wood. Should you ever find yourself without your primary tools, you can make do with primitive tools if you have a bit of practice.
Stone tools are easy to use but take a bit of practice to create. The method of making the flint tools that our Stone Age ancestors would have used is known as flint knapping. Flint is a sedimentary cryptocrystalline form of quartz – the word cryptocrystalline indicates that although flint is made up of small crystals, their structure is so fine that they are imperceptible to the naked eye. You certainly wouldn’t know it to look at a piece of flint because it is very smooth and almost resembles glass or porcelain in texture. It is a type of chert, another stone suitable for flint knapping, and is normally found in nodules within other sedimentary rocks such as limestone or chalk. These nodules can range in size from tiny pebbles to massive boulder-sized pieces.
While the technique of shaping stone tools has taken its name from shaping flint, the technique can be used on a range of stones. The characteristic that is common to all knappable stones is that they must fracture in a predictable, conchoidal manner when struck.
The word conchoidal describes the shape of the fractures produced when a rock is struck and broken. The word comes from the ancient Greek word for a mussel because the curved surfaces created by the fracture of flint resemble a mussel shell. The fact that these materials fracture so predictably can be taken advantage of for the production of tools for cutting, scraping, drilling, and even for the manufacture of arrowheads and daggers. Since the development of firearms, they can also be used for the production of gunflints for flintlock firearms.
Flint tools are perfectly adequate for skinning, butchering, and preparing game to eat. Their edges are more fragile than our modern steel knives, so you will need to be careful when working around bone to avoid chipping and breaking your blades.
You may also find them tiring to use compared with knives with comfortable handles. You may need to pinch the smaller blades between your thumb and finger, or hold larger blades in the palm of your hand and grip them with your thumb and fingers. You will find this fatiguing and not at all like the experience of using a modern knife. You are also likely to cut yourself quite often – partly because you won’t realize just how razor sharp the edges of these stone blades are until you have got used to them, and also because as you make them you will get small cuts from the tiny particles of flint that break off as you knap your blades.
For a simple skinning and butchering task, a single flake of flint, chert, or obsidian is all that’s required. This can be struck from a larger piece with a stone or an antler “soft hammer.” These hammers would have been made out of the beam section of an antler and the coronet – the part of the antler that connects to the deer’s head. They are heavy and softer than stone and are perfect for striking large flakes off flint.
While these flakes might be turned into arrowheads and other specific tools by advanced flint knappers, they are actually perfectly serviceable tools in their own right; and for preparing a deer, rabbit, or other wild foraged food they are all that you will really need. Even the tough skin of a red deer is not a match for the razor-sharp flint.
These edges produced from a single flake are sharper than a retouched or pressure-flaked edge. The edges of ancient arrowheads seem to have a wavy, almost serrated pattern caused by pressure flaking, which is done using the tip of an antler tine. Pressure flaking creates an edge that isn’t quite as fine but is much stronger and therefore resistant to the kind of forces applied to it when it strikes a target. Flaked edges are so sharp that with obsidian, one of the finest knapping stones on the planet, the edge can be as fine as 30 angstroms. An angstrom is a one-hundred-millionth of a centimeter and is the unit of measurement normally used to express the size of atoms, molecules, chemical bonds, and other microscopic structures. To put it in perspective: your average razor blade has an edge thickness of between 300 and 600 angstroms. Obsidian is so sharp that it is used by surgeons for delicate procedures such as brain surgery, or to make incisions that heal faster because it is so sharp it can literally divide cells rather than ripping through them – as a much blunter steel blade would.
With edges so fine and sharp, it isn’t surprising that a deer can be butchered and prepared for eating so easily without steel tools.
You do need to be careful around bone as flint will chip, and the edge of your tool could be ruined. However, it is a simple task to make another one. You can “retouch” the edges of flint tools, but this does take away the fine edge and perhaps makes it more suitable as a piercing tool such as an arrowhead or a burin for scoring and scribing with.
The very finest edges that are perfect for food prep are those on flakes that have only been struck once. Some edges are so fine that they are almost see-through. They are very sharp though, and as you strike a piece of flint to form these flakes, there is a tendency for small fragments to fly all over the place. Take necessary precautions to protect yourself, particularly your eyes, from these flying fragments.
With your flint tools you can not only skin and butcher meat for food, but you can cut it and prepare it for eating. The same goes for vegetables and other foraged edibles. Even without a knife, if you can find a suitable stone, you can make your own tools for all your survival needs.