Bone – A Forgotten Resource

For the past few years, I have increasingly grown more and more fascinated with bone as a resource in primitive skills and crafts. In today’s study of  Bushcraft skills, people tend to gravitate towards those skills that are perceived to be either easy or exciting and some harder and less appealing skills get put on the back burner.

For example, if you asked any competent ‘Bushcrafter’ how to light a fire? I’m sure they could give you several different ignition sources and numerous types of tinder to light a fire faster than the speed of light, as this is perceived as a relatively basic skill in many ways, and one that people tend to learn early on in their Bushcraft journey.  Similarly, if you were to ask them about carving spoons or flint knapping, I’m sure their eyes would light up and they could rattle off numerous example of when they made spoons or maybe flint arrow heads. I wasn’t any different when I started the same journey many years ago, fixating on making fires, spoons, and flint blades as well as all the other common “Beginner’s Bushcraft” skills like building dens in the woods or annoying my mother by caking the floor in mud from my boots (a very important skill to learn!!). These are integral and important skills to learn but may be the only skills people develop especially for  those who have other lives outside of the woods and who are limited in time and resources.  However, they are by no means the only skills.

 

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A collection of bone tools made on our membership weekend. from left to right – Bone awls, Antler rings,Bone needles

 

 

 

A New Skill

 

A replica bone toolkit depicting : hide fleshing tools, chisels, harpoon heads, awls, fishhooks, needles, needle case, knife. photo credit :http://www.dayofarchaeology.com/tag/native-american/

A replica bone toolkit depicting : hide fleshing tools, chisels, harpoon heads, awls, fishhooks, needles, needle case, knife. photo credit :http://www.dayofarchaeology.com/tag/native-american/

 

 

 

Bone work is one primitive skill that lacks the recognition it deserves as a valuable skill, despite it being used for thousands of years , pretty much as soon as we could hunt we had access to bones as a resource.  Although unlike wood or stone bone can be used as almost an intermediary having characteristics of both.

Bone has been used to make almost every primitive tool imaginable at some time or another from small simple items such as; needles for sewing clothing or awls for punching holes in hides or basketry to larger more prestigious items such as harpoon heads, arrowheads, and even axe heads.

 

 

 

bone vs flint

Bone arrowhead Vs Flint arrowhea

 

These just really are the tip of the iceberg too. Here in Britain, we are limited as to which bones we can use and therefore what we can make from them. We mainly have access to smaller bones such as hare, fox, and deer which except red deer don’t get to a very large size.

danny acquireing raw materials

Instructor Danny Hodgson Acquiring the raw material from a deer.

 

Wood working chisel made from the tooth and jaw bone of a Hare. the jaw id bound in place on the handle with plaited deer sinew.

Woodworking chisel made from the tooth and jaw bone of a Hare. The jaw is bound in place on the handle with plaited deer sinew.

 

 

 

Bone work throughout the world

In other parts of the world however,  bone does not just become a valued resource but it has been integral to survival. One example where we can see this in action are the hunter gather cultures of Polynesia, such as the Maoris of new Zealand, who although they had access to wood hunted such large sea animals that the bone was an incredibly abundant resource. In fact, more often than not, the woodworking tools  such as chisels, axes, and adzes were made from bone,.

 

 

 

Bone Woodworking Adze made fro the leg bone of cattle the head is bound on teh the hawthorn handle with plaited willow bark.

Bone Woodworking Adze made from the leg bone of cattle. The head is bound on to the hawthorn handle with plaited willow bark.

 

Another culture that was heavily dependent upon bone and how to work it, were the northern American/Artic cultures such as the Intuit and Yupik People. These people have learnt to thrive in an area almost devoid of the large species of trees or abundant knappable rock. Despite this, they have been able to lead an almost unchanged existence for thousands of year due to the fact they used bone.

 

fish hooks and harpoon point

Bone fishing hooks and projectile point

 

The Inuit cultures of the arctic and sub-arctic were masters of carving bone and walrus ivory, in particular fashioning most if not all of their hunting equipment from these materials particularly harpoon heads which they would use to hunt seal walrus and whale. Arguably the most important of all tools that they carve from bone, however, has to be the humble needle.

 

needles

Bone Needleslearned how to manipulate bone and fashion it into workable tools.

 

The invention of the needle allowed mankind to reach areas of the planet that had hitherto been inaccessible as it allowed us to make appropriate and weather proof clothing from animal hides. This is thought to have enabled the advance of humans into the northern climes such north Siberia and from there into America which contributed to  colonization of the rest of the planet – all just from the humble bone needle.

bone snare

Deer Bone squirrel snare

 

polished arrow head

Polished bone arrow head

 

scapulkar saw

Reed saw made from Deer scapular

So hopefully you can now see how influential bone tools and artefacts have been in the development of certain and to a certain degree how our ability to work it has influenced our development as a species. In a previous blog – Rocking out the Stone Age , I explained how it has been suggested how music and in particular bone flutes could have developed our early ancestors’ cognitive thinking abilities leading to an increase in successful survival and adaptation as a species.

bone whistles

2 very simple whistles made of deer bone and made entirely with flint tools . Far left with engraved symbol which was also made using flint tools.

 

 

BOne fipple flutes

3 Handmade deer bone flutes. 2 replica Medieval flutes and one Neolithic replica

 

 

So next time you have a roast dinner or a rack of ribs, before you simply throw away what is perceived as the leftovers, just have a think of what you could make and how valuable a resource you hold in your hand and potentially a whole new skill set you could develop if you just simply learned how to work bone.

 

Joseph Philbin