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Wilderness Kids- Children in the Wilderness, Teaching Skills at an Early Age

Climbing Gear for Kids

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The Four Year Old Archaeologist

If you ask my son what he wants to be when he grows up he may look at you with a bit of confusion. If you see him in his excavation unit, troweling away, screening dirt, or mapping, and ask him if wants to be an archaeologist when he grows up, he will tell you,
"I am an archaeologist." To him, there is only what he is enjoying at the moment, and practicing archaeology is one of his great enjoyments. Besides the philosophical premise of being in the moment, which I am doing my best to relate to him, I am also teaching him about archaeology. He already has a strong grasp of many of the scientific concepts including documentation and mapping, artifact collection, ethnographic studies and even experimental archaeology. He has been to many ruins, rock art panels, and has held real artifacts in his hands and seen the context in which they are found. He continues to absorb all the information I give him, and never stops asking for more.

Last summer we received a call from a friend who is an excavator and was working on a large landscaping project at the base of the foothills in Boulder. They had uncovered a cache of stone tools, debitage, and a few animal bones. We were invited up to take a look at the artifacts.They had already called Professor Doug Bamforth at the University of Colorado who specialises in plains archaeology and Paleoindian culture. He has since had the artifacts analysed and reported the conclusions- the Mahaffy Cache, named after the landowner, turned out to be Clovis-era, about 13,000 years old, and an extremely rare find. News of the cache made it into the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Fox news, and newspapers across the country. Initially the stone tools were thought to be ceremonial in nature based on their size and the spot of red ochre paint found on some of the larger pieces. But this theory seems to have been dropped based on the findings of a protein analysis which found extinct camel and horse protein on the artifacts. Some of the artifacts had been used for butchering. Both of these animals disappeared from the area around 13,000 years ago. For more information about the cache, and a video of the tools, visit the University of Colorado website.

At left, Nicolai after finding a flake. At right, one of the cached tools in my hand.

As soon as we arrived at the site Nicolai jumped down in the hole where the cache was found and he was handed a trowel. He immediately went to work. Although the people on site thought they had found all the artifacts, within minutes Nicolai managed to find another chert flake. He also uncovered a piece of burned wood, which we collected carefully and packaged in aluminum foil to be given to Professor Bamforth. He got to examine the cache and we have since listened to a radio interview with Professor Bamforth and the landowner. We have discussed the cache, talked about the tools and their function, the reasons why the people might have left them, the climate and fauna of the Clovis era, and the geologic events that may have helped preserve the cache. While he may never formally study archaeology, or "become an archaeologist", his interest in the science and the places it leads us, the doors it opens up for learning are more important than any university degree that may be won. With that I will continue promoting learning for the sake of learning and support my four year old archaeologist as long as he wants to be one.

The photo at left shows most of the artifacts from the cache. The tube of lip balm is used for scale- it is about 2 1/2 inches in length.



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