A train­ing course with an ex­pert flint-knap­per trans­ports the au­thor back in time to the ear­li­est hunters

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The au­thor takes an ar­row­head-mak­ing class with an ex­pert flint knap­per. Spoiler alert: The craft is a whole lot harder than it looks. By T. Ed­ward Nick­ens

BACK WHEN YOU WERE lit­tle,” James Parker asks me, “did you ever shoot a plate­glass win­dow with a BB gun? I know I did, be­cause I re­mem­ber the whup­ping I got from my daddy.”

The ques­tion catches me off guard. I’m sit­ting in Parker’s deep-woods work­shop, high in the Ap­palachian Moun­tains of North Carolina, with a rock in each hand, won­der­ing how to use one to turn the other into some­thing sharp and pointy. “Sure,” I re­ply. “What kid didn’t?”

“Good,” Parker says. “Then you al­ready know what a Hertzian cone is. It’s that lit­tle round divot of glass you get when you shoot a win­dow with a BB.” What hap­pens, Parker ex­plains, is the BB’s en­ergy trav­els through the glass and feath­ers out the other side in a cone shape. “And that’s what you’re fix­ing to do,” he con­tin­ues. “Knock a cou­ple hun­dred lit­tle Hertzian cones off the back side of that rock.”

So that’s the trick, I think. Hertzian cones. Con­choidal frac­tures. The lithic re­duc­tion con­tin­uum. My bad. I thought I had come to these moun­tains to learn how to chip out an ar­row­head.


Parker, 54, is a flint-knap­per, tra­di­tional bowyer, and prim­i­tive-skills in­struc­tor. When mu­se­ums need a his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate stone adze or an au­then­tic bark-sided wick­iup, he gets the call. He’s been knap­ping for 40 years. As a teenager, he got 30 bucks for an ar­row­head. Three times now, he has repli­cated ev­ery man-made item found on Ötzi, the famed Ice Man of the Ital­ian Alps—stone tools, cop­per ax, bow, leather cape, cloth­ing, even the ar­row­head found in the 5,300-yearold mummy’s back. Col­lec­tors have paid as much as $15,000 for the sets.

But to­day’s might be his tough­est as­sign­ment. Parker typ­i­cally plans two days for a course in ba­sic flintk­nap­ping. I have a few hours. He started off by knap­ping a 4-inch-long spear point of Keokuk chert. It took him maybe 20 min­utes. Watch­ing, I re­al­ized I’d bit­ten off more than I had time to chew.

Stone tools were the teeth and claws of abo­rig­i­nal man. We tend to think of the sexy stuff—flint knives, ax heads, lance­o­late spear points—but rock was the raw ma­te­rial for nearly ev­ery item in the pri­mor­dial tool chest. Parker ri­fles through the pile of flakes, chips, and fine grit be­tween his feet, what knap­pers call deb­itage. There is noth­ing in the pile, he says, that couldn’t be used. The small­est flakes were turned into spe­cial­ized nee­dle-mak­ing tools. He wets a piece of brain-tanned buck­skin, smears it into the rock dust, and turns it over to show the glis­ten­ing grit. “Wet sand­pa­per,” he says. “They had ev­ery­thing and they wasted noth­ing. When we break a knife, we say, ‘Dang, I gotta go back to Wally World.’ But abo­rig­i­nal man would say, ‘Heck, yeah, I’ve got two more tools!’”

At the mo­ment, I’m just hop­ing to get a sin­gle some­thing out of my rock. The con­vex arch on each side of an ar­row­head or spear point is called the

lentic­u­lar lens. It looks like a foot­ball split length­wise, and fash­ion­ing that dome re­quires a knap­per to think three or four stages down the road. Be­fore you can fash­ion an edge, you have to build a bevel, which means you have to rough out a grind on the

blade and bring the two facets of edge into align­ment. Parker uses a Sharpie to draw out ob­long shapes on one side of the stone and places a dot on the op­po­site side. A pre­cise hit on the dot, with the ex­act an­gle, sends enough en­ergy through the rock to blast out a Hertzian cone on the far side.

Such higher think­ing may have re­sulted in more than a sharp edge. Some sci­en­tists have pro­posed that tool-mak­ing co-evolved with hu­man lan­guage. Us­ing MRIs and Dop­pler ul­tra­sonog­ra­phy on ex­pert knap­pers, they found that pat­terns of blood flow in the cere­bral cor­tex were strik­ingly sim­i­lar when sub­jects were beat­ing on rocks and when the sub­jects sat qui­etly and thought about spe­cific words.

I’m no ex­per­i­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist, but I def­i­nitely thought of spe­cific words as I bashed my fin­gers, missed the rock en­tirely and whacked my thigh, and broke off ragged chunks of rock that quickly turned my mastodon­wor­thy spear point into some­thing more aptly sized for a Pa­le­olithic chip­munk. Parker can tell I’m get­ting frus­trated. My fin­ger bones ache. My palms are bleed­ing from tiny bits of Keokuk shrap­nel. He knows it’s time to lighten the load.

“What’s the old­est pro­fes­sion in the world?” he asks. I cut him a look. We all know the an­swer to that old trope. He grins. “Well, you didn’t get the hooker,” he says, hold­ing up his spear point, “un­til you had some­thing to trade.”

I laugh. That’s a good one. “Don’t be so hard on your­self,” Parker says. “I once kept up with how much rock I beat: 50 tons in a sin­gle year. But that’s noth­ing com­pared to some 10-year-old Chero­kee kid who al­ready had a mil­lion years of her­itage and ex­pe­ri­ence be­hind him the first time he picked up a rock.”

I feel a lit­tle bet­ter. And the lentic­u­lar lens is tak­ing shape. The edges are con­verg­ing. There’s a def­i­nite bi­face to the stone, so it’s ob­vi­ous the rock has been worked. Some­where in­side it lies a spear point. I can al­most see it. Each time I pound a flake off, there’s a sharp, clean bite to the air, and it seems like I can smell the Pleis­tocene.

I chip away. I imag­ine wolves howl­ing out­side the fire­light, or the last few steps of a feed­ing deer. Or a gi­ant ground sloth. An­other Hertzian cone drops to the floor. I’m two hours in. Only a few hun­dred thou­sand years to go.


Prim­i­tive Point James Parker knapped this ar­row­head from Keokuk chert.

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