Sharp Edges

I belong to a Facebook ground called “Fraudulent Archaeology Wall of Shame,” in which people post astonishingly nutty “archaeology” that they find out there on the web, but especially on Facebook. Giants, mudflood, Tartaria, aliens made the pyramids, and so on and so on ad nauseum. It’s completely wacky stuff.

But a few days ago somebody posted something that was funny in a way only a lower Paleolithic archaeologist would appreciate. (I taught prehistory for more than 30 years.)

Here’s the meme (no one at that page would say where it came from, or I’d give credit).

It’s funny. I know it’s meant to make fun of the person asking the ancestors for guidance, and that’s fine — but it also brings up an important point. See what the left-hand early hominim’s saying? “…hit rock with other rock.”

In fact that’s a profund statement, because it speaks to how easy it is to make sharp edges. I use to bring flint into my Human Origins class, make sharp edges by bashing two pieces together, and then use the sharp edge to cut up something, usually pig ears I got from a supermarket. If the students thought about tool-making at all, I’m sure they were thinking it was very difficult to make those beautiful stone tools they were seeing in the textbook — you know, Clovis points and the like. And it’s true — they are very hard to make. But you want sharp edges? Whack a couple of stones together (true, they need to be the right kind).

I’ve finished my novel Mauka, set on the Big Island, and I’m sending it around. I’m going to drop an excerpt from it here. The two narrators (Max and June) are both in their mid-seventies. Max went to grad school for archaeology, but dropped out (more on all this later). The two of them start to exchange short pieces of writing.

Here’s one of Max’s.

Sharp Edges

Peabody Museum, Harvard. 1967. I got a few questioning looks when I walked in to the “Prehistoric Technology” seminar with a large backpack. A student named Desmond shook his head and said I must have one hell of a paper in there. Another, Kate, raised her eyebrows and smiled at me.

I was sure that none of the archaeology professors and none of the students had ever hunted anything larger than cockroaches and rodents and not one of them had ever cut up anything larger than a Thanksgiving turkey. I’d spent considerable time hunting animals, killing them, and butchering them, which meant I knew how to do things they did not, had experienced things they had not, and yet part of what we were all studying involved killing animals and cutting them up.

I was interested in the very first stone tools our ancestors made a couple of million years ago, how much intelligence it would have taken to make them, and what could be done with them.

 In East Africa, paleoanthropologists were finding crude axe-like tools called choppers, and the pieces that were knocked off while making them, called waste flakes. I’d been looking at drawings and photographs of the waste flakes, and I could see that they always had a sharp edge, that they were usually of a size to be held by a small hand, and began to think they might be cutting tools, rather than waste.

I got some flint and started experimenting in my apartment, trying to understand how much brainpower it would take. I didn’t think it took more than getting the right kind of stone, slamming two pieces together and using the sharp flakes that fly off.

I used to run by a Jamaican restaurant that had good goat curry. When I’d finished thinking and writing about the sharp edges I stopped and asked about a goat. They said no problem, ten dollars. I put the kid on a lead and walked it from Somerville back to Cambridge. Right through Harvard Square, stopped at the light. Fewer people seemed startled than I expected. In my apartment I apologized to it, cut its throat with a sharp flake, watched the light disappear from its eyes, its blood drain into the tub, and gutted it.

I reached into my backpack, brought out a cloth sack, and spilled its contents on the table: chunks of flint, some towels, a handful of Band-Aids, and a dozen cheap plastic goggles from the hardware store in the Square.

I explained, demonstrated how easy it was, and suggested people see for themselves. There was clacking and bits of flint flying around. The room smelled like a Zippo lighter. After a few minutes I said, “Now that we’ve seen how easy getting sharp edges is, let’s put them to work.”

I stood up and moved coats from the coatrack along the wall. I pulled out a small drop cloth and put it on the floor. Then I hauled the kid out by its hind legs. There were gasps and muttering.

“A goat!” from Kate.

I picked up one of the sharp edges I’d made and — holding the kid with one hand — slit a hind leg between tendon and bone above the hoof, did the other, and hung it on the coatrack, belly side facing the room.

“This is how easy butchering with smashed flakes is,” I said, proceeding to slice it open, flay it, cut off its forelimbs, lay it on the dropcloth and cut off its hind limbs. I only had to get a new tool twice.

I wiped my hands on a towel, sat down, and read my paper. Minimal technology, minimal skill, maximum yield.

There was considerable discussion, even laughter. Kate asked about visualization. I answered that I didn’t think it took much. There was much smiling and nodding as people left. Except for Desmond, who seemed annoyed. His paper the week before had been very good, but boring.

I managed to wrap the kid pieces up in the dropcloth and cram it all into my backpack. Kate stayed and helped shove one of the legs in. She asked what I was going to do with all that meat. I said I was going to cook it, and she surprised me by saying “I’ve never cooked goat, but I’m a good cook. I’d like to join you. Do you have curry powder?”

* * *

So. It’s not every day that something I wrote finds a home next to a meme. But this little piece did.

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