Holmes Anniversary Volume

Date: 1916

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The very ancient art of producing implements from flint and allied stone substances by means of a fracturing process, though practised almost the world over, seems to have reached a really high state of perfection in only three localities, namely, Egypt, Denmark with adjoining parts of Scandinavia, and the Pacific coast of the United States. To be sure, choice bits of workmanship are to be found elsewhere, as for example in France and in Mexico, but these appear to be exceptions rather than the rule.

Just why these seemingly sporadic occurrences of excelling technique should be localized as they are is an interesting question because the manual dexterity implied might with reason have been looked for elsewhere, unless we at once yield the point that such dexterity is not a gift peculiar to any branch of mankind or, in other words, that the human factor is not the only factor concerned. For the present therefore the archaeologist in attempting to explain these isolated appearances of highly cultivated flint technique can do little more than suggest that they were conditioned to some extent at least by two interdependent factors, the first being the presence of unlimited amounts of raw material and the other a grand scale of manufacture. The larger the output and the larger the number of artisans at work the greater the possibility of an expert—an artist—whose technique, once perfected, stood some chance of being copied and handed down.

If the archaeologist is asked about the elements of the technique itself he is somewhat better informed. It is true he cannot state precisely how the exquisite knife-blades of early predynastie Egypt or the shapely daggers of Scandinavia were produced, but the methods involved in the making of a "Stockton curve" or any other delicately worked object to be found in the Pacific states is fairly well known. Methods of flint chipping have been observed and recorded in many places, especially in America, from the days of John Smith and Torquemada down to Catlin, Schumacher, and still others of recent date. In addition to these observations and based partly on them there has been done an immense amount of study and experimental work. A glance at the Handbook of American Indians under "Stonework" shows what interest the subject has aroused during the last four or five decades. Technology would seem to have been a favorite study, and no one has contributed more to the subject than Professor Holmes. The various processes of pecking, grinding, drilling, flaking, and chipping have all been more or less successfully duplicated. Perhaps none have become expert at flint chipping, for that we know, from the experience of the professional flint workers, requires time; but the arrowpoints, etc., scattered over the face of the earth are no longer mysterious darts from heaven. The art of producing them is well understood.

This being so, it may seem superfluous to record yet another observation on flint chipping. Nevertheless, without citing possible arguments in defense, I venture to describe once more the essential processes and also at the same time to call attention to the fact that a native Indian flint worker is living at present under conditions where he can be observed at work by anyone who will pay him a visit.2


During the early part of 1912, while, connected with the University of California Museum at the Affiliated Colleges in San Francisco, I had opportunity to observe and in a measure to direct the activities of Ishi, the lately rescued survivor of the Yahi or Southern Yana Indians. Among other things suggested to him, partly to satisfy the interest of the visiting public, was that of chipping arrow points, and probably nothing else that he undertook proved of equal interest and satisfaction to Visitors as well as to himself. He still keeps up the work and is not at all averse to having it inspected. Whether or not Ishi is an artist might be a matter for debate, but no one will deny that he is an experienced workman. This conclusion is based partly on a comparison of his productions with the best to be found in California and also on what the English flint workers at Brandon tell us as to the time normally required to master the art.

Unfortunately, what might perhaps be considered strictly scientific procedure was sacrificed at the beginning. In the first place, no considerable amount of raw obsidian being at hand, bits of heavy plate-glass were furnished, and Ishi, finding this substance somewhat less refractory than obsidian and much more easily worked than chalcedony, agate, and the like, soon offered mild objections to using any medium except glass. This does not mean, however, that he could not be prevailed upon to work obsidian and other rocks. In the second place, Ishi, whether as a result of outside suggestions or his own intelligence I do not recall, found tools made of iron preferable to the old-fashioned implements of Indian manufacture. But while these facts might be urged as objections to the genuineness of his art, it still remains a fact that Ishi’s method is his own and was mastered by him years before, probably with tools of the same general size and shape, if not actually of iron.

That iron tools are the best, considered from the point of view of the finished product made with them, is very doubtful; it is so hard and unyielding in comparison with bone or antler as to tend to bruise the edge of the obsidian; but, on the other hand, it keeps the point better and in that way saves time. With these facts in mind let us briefly consider what actually takes place when Ishi goes to work.


Given a nodule of flint or a lump of obsidian, Ishi, in making a notched arrowpoint, let us say, employs three distinct processes, for each of which special tools ordinarily are required. The first process involves the division or breaking up of the obsidian mass to obtain suitable thin and straight flakes; the second process consists in chipping the selected flake to the size and shape of the arrowpoint desired; and the third and final process embodies, among other things, the notching of the base of the point to facilitate its attachment to the arrowshaft.

For the first process, that of dividing the obsidian mass, an ordinary hard, water-worn bowlder may do, especially if only small flakes are wanted, the obsidian being broken up or a flake struck from it by a direct blow. But if a large spearpoint or knife-blade is ultimately desired, an intermediate tool is needed. This is apparently (Ishi never made one for me to see) a short, stout, blunt-pointed piece of bone or wood serving as a sort of punch and sometimes as a lever. As a matter of fact, what is wanted in the case of producing a large implement is not the division of the obsidian mass but the trimming down of this mass by the detachment from it of all unnecessary portions. A direct blow with a hammerstone might be fatal to the obsidian core being thus shaped, while an indirect blow, delivered through this punch, the same being held at a selected spot and angle, has some chance of success in removing the superfluous portions without shattering the whole piece to bits. A hammerstone then, or a hammerstone together with a punch, are the tools required for the preliminary rough work, namely, the production of flakes or of a flaked core.

For the secondary flaking or, as it will be termed in this paper, chipping, a tool was made as follows: Ishi on one occasion took a common spike and at another time a piece of iron rod about the size of a lead pencil. He ground one end down about equally on two opposing sides, making a curving, chisel-like cutting edge, lenticular in cross-section—a tool of a nature half-way between an awl and a chisel. Around the butt-end a bit of cloth was wrapped to ease the handhold, and the chipping tool was finished. The notching tool was practically a duplicate of the preceding, but much smaller. A slender nail was sharpened as before and, being too small to be held in the hand as it was, the butt-end was inserted into an improvised wooden handle. The whole tool was nothing more nor less than a common awl.

Another necessary item was a piece of leather or hide with Which to protect the hand holding the obsidian during the chipping and notching processes.

Five things therefore seem to constitute the full complement of tools and accessories used in making the average chipped artifact. But more or fewer tools may no doubt be employed under extreme conditions.


Preliminary Flaking.—Unfortunately, while Ishi went through the motions of this process a number of times for me, I never photographed it, wishing first to be convinced of its feasibilities. But for reasons which I did not comprehend at the time, Ishi always refused to execute the process. Professor Kroeber has since been partly successful with him, and from his report I judge that Ishi’s reluctance was due in all probability to the element of danger involved. Thus it appears that the first time Ishi was induced to try flake production he was cut about the face by flying bits of the glass-like substance and bled profusely. Quite naturally therefore the accompanying illustration of the act (plate 1, a), furnished by Professor Kroeber, shows Ishi with his eyes closed. This photograph, it should be explained, is not a mere pose; it is a selected view of the workman in action and as such tells a better story than words could do. Ishi holds a water-worn bowlder in the right hand and a lump of obsidian in the left, and is attempting to break up the latter or to dislodge flakes from it by means of repeated direct blows. From among the resulting fragments he will pick out those most readily adapted to the purpose needed, let us say arrowpoints, and proceed at once to shape them.

Secondary Flaking or Chipping.—Having selected a suitable flake, Ishi assumes the new pose shown in plate I, b, also kindly furnished by Professor Kroeber. The actual disposition of flake and tool is better indicated in the detail views of plate II. The flake to be worked will be observed resting on a bit of leather and placed transversely across the

PLATE I. a. The Primary process—disloding flakes from a piece of obsidian by means of a bowlder. b. The secondary process—chipping the obsidian.


proximal fleshy part of the left palm and there held by one or more of the finger-tips. The chipping tool, grasped firmly with the right hand, is placed on the upper side of the flake, very close to the edge, and by a quick, downward pressure a chip is removed from the under-side of the flake. That much of this seemingly simple act will be noticed by any casual observer, but it may be well to analyze the act a little so as to show that it is after all not so simple as it looks. There is, so to speak, some knack about it. First of all we may note the fact, well shown in the illustration, that the axis of the tool used and the edge of the obsidian to be worked do not meet at a right angle, although they are in nearly the same plane. Secondly, and this does not show well in the illustration, the chipping tool is so turned on its axis that the plane of its cutting edge meets the plane of the flake to be worked at nearly, if not quite, a right angle. That this turn of the chipping tool is necessary or at least deliberate is certain because Ishi employs it invariably in the later stages of the chipping process, but not at all regularly in the early stages. Not having experimented very much, I am unable to say why Ishi proceeds as he does, but he gets results which I cannot imitate, try as I will. Ishi removes thin and fairly slender chips that extend two-thirds or more across the face of the flake, while my chips are thick and short. Consequently his arrowpoints when finished are thin and shapely, while mine, much to his disguest, are thick and clumsy affairs. My work resembles the abrupt Mousterian retouch, while Ishi’s is the true Solutrian technique.

As to the actual movements involved in chipping, these would be rather difficult to describe. The pressure exerted, if not too great, comes mostly from a wrist action; but if greater weight is needed the leverage is thrown back to the elbow and shoulder. The precision of the movement in the later and more delicate stage of the work is guided by placing the index finger of the tool against the edge of the palm on which the flake lies. The pressure is down, of course, rather than up, mainly in order to avoid the flying chips, and the chips being left in the palm of the hand absolutely necessitates the leather pad. Ishi works rapidly, reversing the flake often or not as conditions require. He begins chipping at the point on the flake nearest the tool and gradually works toward the farther end, and his best work appears to be done when he is chipping in a direction from the point end of the arrowpoint toward the base rather than when, on reversal, he must work in the opposite direction, i.e., from the base of the arrowpoint toward the point. Working in this manner Ishi can finish aa arrowpoint of average size in half an hour, more or less, according to the nature of the substance he is working and also according to the adaptability of the flake originally selected. Having finished he proceeds to the final step.

Notching and Serrating.—First of all, Ishi takes his leather pad, doubles it over the end of his left thumb, and ties it in place with a string. Then he grips the arrowpoint near the base, holding it firmly between the end of the protected thumb and adjoining index finger. With the right hand he directs the point of the notching tool against the edge of the arrowpoint at the place where the notch is to be, and by a slight pressure removes a small chip. The tool is held perpendicular to the plane of the arrowpoint and is pushed forward as if to be driven into the end of the thumb. For each minute chip thus removed the arrowpoint is reversed until the notch is of the depth desired. The successful act requires some deftness, or the stem is sure to be severed from the blade of the arrowpoint. Ishi seldom fails, however, especially when working with glass, and he completes the two notches often in about half a minute’s time. If the edge of the arrowpoint was to be serrated, Ishi would doubtless proceed in the same way, although I never asked him to try.


2 This was the case at the time these lines were written, but Ishi died in March, 1916.

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Chicago: Holmes Anniversary Volume in Source Book in Anthropology, ed. Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1920), Original Sources, accessed September 22, 2023, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XGZKTFLWD5I2JEN.

MLA: . Holmes Anniversary Volume, in Source Book in Anthropology, edited by Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T., Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1920, Original Sources. 22 Sep. 2023. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XGZKTFLWD5I2JEN.

Harvard: , Holmes Anniversary Volume. cited in 1920, Source Book in Anthropology, ed. , University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 22 September 2023, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XGZKTFLWD5I2JEN.