Making Thread from Spider Webs

There are many ways to make rope with Stone Age technology, but the ropes are all pretty thick, which makes them not well suited to certain tasks, so I wondered how Stone Age people made thread. The obvious material of choice would be wool or cotton yarn, but Paleolithic people did not have agriculture, so they would not have been able to do large scale shearing of sheep. Wild cotton does grow in several places around the world, but without cultivated cotton fields the supply would have been pretty small. So, while they may have made some type of yarn out of wild wool or wild cotton (and it is hard to know if they did because those materials degrade very quickly and are rarely found in the archaeological record) it would have been rare.

One thing that is more abundant and easy to find in the wild is silk. Many insects and arachnids make silk of some kind, which can be spun into thread. There is some evidence I found of stone age silk (again it’s hard to find because silk degrades very easily over the course of so many millennia) so I decided to make silk thread.

In order to do this I had to get over my squeamishness and start taking down spider webs. Below is a video of me making a small strand of thread from a spider web. It was not a usable piece since the web was so full of debris, but that makes it easy to see on camera. Most of the pictures and videos I took didn’t turn out because spider webs are hard to see on film.

 

So, besides my awkward commentary in the video, the technique is right. When there is an intact web with very little debris you start taking it off its supports one at a time so it folds in on itself, then twist it into a thread. It’s difficult to get the hang of and took a lot of tries to get right. If you want it to be thicker, then fold it in half and twist again. If you want it to be longer, then twist another strand onto the end. It’s sticky enough that it will stay together like that. I rolled my strands around a stick like a spool so I can save them for later use.

I assume you could also use any kind of silk found in the wild, but spider webs are very readily available and easy to find so they provide the best supply for making thread.

 

Let me know if you have any questions and don’t forget to subscribe!

 

Cave Paintings

The Stone Age fascinates me because it accounts for 97% of human history, but it is so unknowable. The mists of time have closed around it and hidden it from our view. We do find artifacts that show us technology from the time but this data is pretty limited and when it comes to knowing about Stone Age cultures, philosophies, and worldviews there are hardly any clues. However, in a few places, the shroud of mist does retreat ever so slightly and allow us a glimpse at Stone Age culture. Places like Göbekli Tepe, Stonehenge, Newgrange, stir up feelings of awe and mystery. However, to me, the most intriguing and mysterious relics Paleolithic cultures left behind are the cave paintings.

Since I am so intrigued by these painings I researched how the paint was made and decided to try painting one myself.

The first step was to make the pigment, which can be done by using a hammer and anvil to crush various materials into a fine powder. Before this, though, I needed to have a bowl of some sort to hold the powder in. I decided to go digging for freshwater clams to use their shells as bowls. In Michigan, you can find clams or even empty clam shells very easily in any body of water that has a soft muddy bottom.

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Next, I had to make the pigment by crushing the raw materials into a powder with my hammer and anvil.

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I decided to make red, black, and green paint. The black pigment was just crushed coal from a fire pit.

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The red pigment was made by smashing and grinding hematite (an iron ore) into a powder. This was significantly harder than crushing coal and it took a very long time and a lot of energy.

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My wife helped out with this long process!

 

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Pigment powder

The green pigment was made by crushing copper ore in a similar way. I enlisted the help of my friend Spencer for this pigment.


Now that we had all the pigments all I needed to do was to mix them in with some type of binding ingredient to make a thick paint paste. Evidence shows us that the most common ingredient used as a binder in Paleolithic times was animal fat or lard. Since I’m not yet skilled enough to hunt and render lard using my own Stone Age tools, I cheated and bought some lard from the store.

I mixed the lard in some larger clam shells I had and made a thick paste. The colors were very muted, but I think it turned out fairly well.


After this, all Spencer and I had to do was find flat stones and finger paint. Below are pictures of our final products.

Spencer’s painting

 

My painting

Hammer and Anvil

When most people think of a hammer and anvil, they picture this…

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Source

But the technology of a hammer and anvil goes back to before we were even humans. In fact, many of our primate cousins use them, such as Chimpanzees and Capuchin Monkeys. Hammers and anvils are about the most simple tools there are, but they are enormously important for most Stone Age craft. In fact, I needed a set to be able to complete four of the projects I am currently working on.

First I needed to find a hammerstone. It’s a pretty simple task. You just need to find a stone that is shaped kind of like an egg that you can grip comfortably in your hand.

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Next, you need an anvil. Any stable flat surface can work as an anvil, so there are many types. I wanted a relatively small one so it could be portable. Sometimes you can find a rock with good balance and a naturally flat bottom and top, but you’ll likely get a better result by finding a rock and breaking it against another rock until it cracks and becomes a flat surface. In my case the top is mostly flat, but slightly concave which makes it useful as a mortar and pestle set as well.

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That’s it! Now you can use it for any number of things. Grinding, smashing, shaping, etc.

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Making a Four-Pronged Spear

After making a simple spear I decided I would give a try at making a four-pronged hunting spear. Since this project is so similar to a previous post I will move through some of the steps more quickly. Anyone who is interested in more detail should see my previous post Making a Simple Spear.

First, I selected this small tree and chopped it down with my limestone axe head.

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The thin tree in the center

After this, I peeled the bark off one end and began working to split that end into four tongs. I did this by using a very thin stone flake and hammering it into the end with a stick. Once the flake was lodged all the way in and the split was running a few inches down the shaft, I used another stone flake to create a perpendicular split.

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I pulled the stone shards out then used fresh pine twigs and pulled them down so the shaft split several more inches and the points flared out more. I used pine because it bends easily and, therefore, the pressure of pulling the twigs down the grain of a much larger stick didn’t break them.

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Next, I sharpened the tips of the points with my obsidian knife until they were very sharp and cut the excess off the pine twigs. I left the pine twigs in because if I took them out the four prongs would come back together. The idea behind having a four-pronged spear is that it has more spread than a spear with a single point and, therefore, you have a better chance of getting the frog or fish you are aiming for.

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All I had to do after that was fire-harden it. Please see my previous post to see how fire hardening works. One interesting thing that happened this time is that some of the sap boiled out of the wood when I was hardening it. You can see the burnt sap bubbles in the picture below.

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Pictures of the finished project are below. I didn’t bother stripping all the bark off this time because it took forever last time and the bark on this stick is smoother so I don’t mind leaving it on.

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Please leave a comment below if you have any questions and don’t forget to subscribe if you want to learn Stone Age technologies along with me!

Making Rope from Cattails

As I started planning out my next Stone Age projects it became increasingly clear that I needed to learn how to make rope, since so many Paleolithic technologies use cordage in some way. There are a plethora of different ways to make rope from natural materials, but I decided to make cattail rope first since there are tons of cattails where I live. Cattails are incredibly useful plants. The roots are an edible vegetable, several parts of the plant have antiseptic and medicinal properties, the seeds can be used to make fletching for darts or as tinder to start a fire, green leaves can be used to weave baskets, and dead leaves can be used to make rope.

The first step is to find a wetland area where there are cattails growing and gather some dead leaves. The leaves are brittle so you won’t need any tools to break them off, but they are a little tricky to break cleanly since there are so many fibers (these fibers are the reason cattails make good cordage). You’ll want quite a few leaves. If in doubt, take more.

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Next, you need to soak the leaves for at least two hours, but not longer than four hours. They are very brittle at first, but soaking them will rehydrate the fibers and allow the leaves to be bent and twisted without breaking. Soaking for too long will cause the fibers to weaken and fall apart when twisted. Finding a place to soak them is easy since they always grow near water. If you’re not a Stone Age technology purist, you can use a sink or bucket.

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This only made about 10 inches of rope

After the leaves have soaked for the right amount of time you can begin to make your rope. The trickiest part of this whole project for me was figuring out how wet the leaves should be when you begin to twist them. They dry out fast so you need to take them out one at a time and leave the others soaking until you need them. However, the leaves can be too wet so sometimes I found I needed to press them flat to get some of the water out before I twisted them. The first step before you twist is to fold the leaf in half lengthwise as shown below.

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Then twist the until there is a kink. That will be the end of your rope. Fold the leaf in half where the kink formed and then begin to twist each of the two strands the opposite way from how you are braiding them together. That’s hard to explain in writing so please watch my short explanation video below to see it in action.

Here’s a picture of what it looked like before I had to add another cattail.

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…But when I needed to add the other leaves, which is done by twisting the end of one and the beginning of another together for about two braids, it looked like this.

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Not so pretty. I waited for it to dry a bit then used my trusty obsidian knife to cut off the pieces that were sticking out. My final product looks like this.

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It’s not pretty but the rope is pretty strong. I couldn’t pull it apart even when I tried, so I’d say it’s a success. This skill will be invaluable since rope is an essential part of many of the projects I intend to try and I’m very pleased with how well this process turned out.

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Leave a comment if you have any questions and subscribe if you want to learn more about Stone Age technologies! Thanks for reading!

Making a Simple Spear

My first endeavors into Stone Age technology were some terribly failed attempts at making knives out of stone shards I gathered on vacation in the Appalachian mountains. I picked stones that were already thin and sharp, but they are pretty fragile and I was unable to make anything sharp enough to cut. I mostly scraped or chopped with them. I tried to make two different spears with them, but the stones kept breaking and they were unable to make a sharp point for the spear.

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Here they are in all their glory

Since these attempts were mostly unsuccessful I will not include the process here. The only one of these crude first attempts worth mentioning is this limestone fragment I found that works quite well as an axe. Since limestone is not a very tough material I hope to make a better axe soon, but for now I am using this:

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Clearly, I need a lot of practice before I’m able to make a knife capable of functioning, so I decided to cheat a little bit and use this obsidian knife I have.

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It is a genuine artifact from Central America that was found by a friend. I know it’s not exactly kosher to own historical artifacts, but this was found and brought back to the states by a well-meaning friend, so I keep it. It also hurts my archaeological sensibilities a little bit to use this, but since it’s a broken tool that was discarded by its original user, I like to think the original maker wouldn’t mind too much. If I could thank him or her I would. Eventually I will only use tools I make from scratch, but everyone has to start somewhere, including our Stone Age ancestors who certainly used tools that they did not personally make at times.

Making the Simple Spear

In order to make a spear that would be strong enough to withstand force and stay sharp for several uses, I had to chop down a hardwood tree and fire harden it. After a long time of searching for the perfect tree I settled on this small oak (at least I’m pretty sure it was an oak, but, since the leaves haven’t sprouted yet here in Michigan, it’s a bit hard to tell) and set to work.

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It’s the skinny straight one right in the center

I used my axe to hack away at the base and the top to get the straight, strong middle section I wanted. Once the axe had done its work I snapped and twisted the tree until I had the piece I wanted. The whole process took about 45 minutes and left my hands blistered and cramped.

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Starting to chop

 

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Taking a break

 

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At this point I thought ‘maybe I’ll just say I was making a quarterstaff instead.’

I used the axe to make a dull point on one end and then used the axe to help me peel off the bark. This process took an entire afternoon so I had to finish the next day. The next step in the morning was to use my obsidian knife to whittle the point into one that is very, very sharp. At this point my spear was basically done except for some fine-tuning.

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These splintered and peeling bark fragments needed to be dealt with and whittling them down would have taken FOREVER with an obsidian knife, so I burned them off.

I could have used it right now, but the point would be dull after only one use so I had to fire harden it. Fire hardening is a pretty simple process, but it takes a long time. You simply hold the object near the heat for at least an hour all while rotating it slowly. It will darken slightly but you don’t want it to burn! If it burns it turns to charcoal and that is much weaker than wood. Since the wood is green, basically the heat makes the sap left in the wood boil and steam so that it hardens into a resin that holds the fibers of the wood together very tightly. This makes the wood very strong and durable. Here’s my final product.

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People usually think of spears as having stone points, but those were much rarer than these simple spears. I may eventually make a more complex spear with a stone point, but this spear is strong and plenty sharp and will stay that way for a long time. Even into the Middle Ages spears like this were very commonly used.

It took me three tries to make a successful simple spear with Stone Age technology. It’s really amazing how much effort goes into even simple tasks like this when you have to use the tools our Stone Age ancestors used. If I had been able to use a metal axe and knife this would only have taken an hour or two, but instead it took two full afternoons.

I am working on several more projects right now and I will post them as I complete them. Future projects will get more and more complex with time and practice!