Saturday, August 14, 2010

Sinew? Where the Hell Would I get Sinew?

Two Really Big things happened between about 50,000 years ago and 10,000 years ago: 1) our ancestors spread themselves pretty much all over the world, and 2) really big animals went extinct everywhere except Africa. The connection between the one and the other seems pretty obvious, but obvious doesn't make right. Climate was also changing in big ways that could also have killed off the Pleistocene megafauna.

Debate's been going on for over a century as to which did them in, us or climate. As things stand now, it looks like both human hunting and climate change played a role. Without us, at least some of the mammoths, ground sloths, and other big animals would have been able to track the changing climate, as they did through dozens of previous glacial-interglacial cycles. On the other hand, it's a little hard to imagine how they could've survived us, even if climate hadn't posed much of a problem for them. We just wouldn't put up enormous mastodons trampling our crops and cities, or short-faced bears ravaging the suburbs of Heidelberg.

One of the reasons for our potent rise over the past 100,000 years has been a growing ability to use tools for things like hunting. Our pre-human ancestors figured out how to chip stones into bladed tools over a million years ago. Blades concentrate the relatively small amounts of muscle energy we're able to exert into very tiny areas. You can bludgeon something with a rock, but you can cut its eyes out with a sharpened rock, especially if you attach it to a pole. Throw the pole and you might even get away without getting trampled or gored.

The problem with spears is that the distance you can throw one is limited not only by strength, but arm length. Enter the atlatl, a simple arm extension. It's just a stick, maybe a couple of feet long, with a notch at one end that fits into the back end of a spear or dart. It effectively lengthens your arm, and thus increases the force you can muster to make it travel away from you.

Whatever damage we did to the Pleistocene megafauna, it certainly would've been less without the atlatl. If there's any doubt about that, take a look at this video of a 7 year-old getting a deer with a modern-day atlatl. (Do yourself a favor and stop once the "Rocky" theme starts.)

Kinda puts the megafauna extinction debate in a whole new light.

Last summer, I decided to add a lab on this business of paleolithic technology to a course called Evolution, Ecology, and Human Impact. And I decided to make an atlatl and some darts for a demonstration. It seemed simple enough, and ultimately, it was. But it was still pretty complicated, and it made me keenly aware of just how context-dependent all technology is.

I started with the atlatl itself. It was easy enough finding pictures of real atlatls from archeological digs, not to mention plans, how-to docs, and other info (for example, here and here). And videos on Youtube, of course. I decided to make mine using branch from a basswood tree growing in front of our house.

A couple of whacks with a decidedly non-paleolithic folding saw and some whittling, and I had it all roughed out. Looked like this was going to be a cinch.

The next step was the darts. I took a walk down the river looking for some maple or birch saplings, but couldn't find any that weren't branched or badly bent. I didn't have the time to cure and straighten them. Youtube told me that river cane would work, but we're too far east for that. After a lot of unsuccessful trekking around, I came home and found some good-looking candidates in the mock orange bush in the back yard. So I harvested some of those and set them in the garage to dry. A few days later, I noticed they were cracking. That was never going to pan out.

It was starting to dawn on me how far away from an atlatl-sort of world I really was. If I were a real paleo-dude, I'd have grown up knowing how to do all of this stuff and wouldn't have needed Google or Youtube. I'd probably have a supply of cured saplings. I'd have a campfire next to a stream, so I could soak my cured sticks, sit around the fire shooting the shit with my paleo-buds and straightening my dart shafts. I'd also have a supply of feathers for fletching, probably from a turkey or goose I'd eaten for dinner the day before. And I'd have some pine pitch and sinew lying around. But where the hell would I get sinew in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania? Road kill, but that's messy, unless you're really lucky. And even then, I have no idea how to process it. There's only so much time I could spend Googling, and only so much mess Anne's willing to put up with.

I worked on the atlatl itself, whittling it down to a pleasant shape and getting the little nub carved down the way I wanted it. I thought about the dart problem for a few days and finally gave up, went down to the hardware store, and bought some dowels. They're about 4' long--about 3' shorter than they really should be--but good enough. I sent my daughter to WalMart to buy some feathers in the craft section. They're dyed gaudy colors and pretty beat up, but they'll do. I'd found an excellent video on how to fletch the darts, I decided to just go with hot-melt glue, the modern equivalent of pine pitch and ashes resin. I sharpened the ends of the darts a bit, but they really need a little weight to move the center of gravity up towards the front. I think a 6d nail and some glue should work, but for now, they're just wood and a little more wobbly in flight than they should be.

I took the whole shebang down to the little park at the end of the street and gave it a try. I wanted to see how far I could throw the darts without the atlatl. As it turns out, not very far. The best throw I got was about 20 yards. The first 10 or so throws with the atlatl went a lot less than that, and pretty much straight into the ground. But once I got it down, I could launch it a good 50 or 60 yards. That was pretty gratifying.

Except for the matter of the tips, I'm set up well enough to make the lab work. But I wanted to make at least one dart that had a bit of verisimilitude to it. I found a nice, 7' long, nearly perfectly straight bamboo pole in the garage and figured that'd do. My friend Eli gave me a bag of turkey feathers he'd been saving, just in case. I fletched them as per Youtube using some carpet thread that at least had the virtue of being from the late 1800s (my mother in-law and her family never threw anything away). So far so good. On the other end, I drilled out the bamboo to hold the foreshaft with the dart tip. It needed some reinforcement, so I soaked a rawhide dog chew toy to soften it, cut some strips, whipped the end, and let it dry. Rawhide must've been the plastic of the paleo world. It's pretty remarkable stuff, as long as it stays dry.

For the tip, I decided to use an actual paleolithic point I'd picked up in the Sahara. I've never been able to find out much about it, but I did see some points very much like it from the same region at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Lacking sinew, I wandered around downtown looking for some waxed linen and finally ended up buying a wad of cobbler's thread (waxed nylon) from a real cobbler, Angelo, who fixes my shoes. And in lieu of pitch, I went back to the hot melt glue gun. I carved a foreshaft from a maple sapling I'd chopped out of the hedge last year, hafted the Egyptian point to it, and called it good enough.

So I've got a dart that looks plausible enough, but it could only exist in this particular place and time, I suppose. It's got bamboo from Asia, feathers from North America, rawhide from Argentina, and a point from Africa. I accidentally poked myself in the foot with it, and I'm pretty sure it'd pierce a ground sloth's hide without any trouble at all.

That said, the interchangable nature of the foreshaft means that I can add even more potent warheads. I read somewhere that the one below is even mightier than a sword.

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