When Ishi the Yahi Indian wandered into a northern California lumber camp in 1916, people first thought him a trespasser from the Stone Age. Tired and hungry from fleeing the encroachments of the twentieth century, he was the last of his tribe -- and the last North American Indian of any tribe -- to live solely by his Neolithic hunting skills, using only bows and stone arrowheads to kill the animals from which he made his meals and clothing.
Anthropologists invited Ishi to live at the University of California to teach them how to make and use his everyday stone tools and weapons. Long-lost techniques of manufacture were thus regained in a few short lessons. While earlier researchers had studied from acculturated Indians who partially remembered some of these skills, Ishi relied on stone tools for everything he made and ate. It was as if a member of the Stone Age -- as many North American Indians were at the time of Columbus -- were to teach a graduate course on lithic technology.
Ishi's demonstrations to Saxton Pope, a doctor who first met him at the university, and others put the art of stone flaking, or, as it is more commonly called, flint-knapping -- including such nonflint stones as jasper, chert, chalcedony, and obsidian -- firmly in the arena of serious academic study. Archaeologists and anthropologists saw that it was indeed possible to learn about ancient and primitive cultures from the process of making their own stone tools, and not just from studying them as inert objects.
One of the most interesting doors opened by experimental flintknapping was toward the understanding of Meso-american tools and ceremonial goods. Obsidian was the raw ingredient of its material culture and may even have determined the rise and fall of Teotihuacan. The obsidian knife, itztli, was an aspect of the goddess Itzpapalotl, or Obsidian Knife Butterfly. Finely made key-shaped objects, known as "eccentrics" and bearing an uncanny likeness to Egyptian ankhs, are found commonly in royal tombs and cenotes. The factory site of Colha in northern Belize exported millions of obsidian axes and hoes to points far beyond Maya land.
But how obsidian was actually worked remained a mystery. Early Spanish accounts, such as those by Francisco Hernandez, Toribio de Benavente, and even Bernardo de Sahagun's illustrations, were overly vague yet praised the finished products and those who made them. Juan de Torquemada, in his Monarquia Indiana [Indian Monarchy], described the prismatic blades used by the Maya as a basic cutting tool and by the Spanish apparently as a disposable straight razor.
"They had and have craftsmen who make knives of a certain black stone, and to see them produced from stone is a great marvel and a thing worthy of much administration, and the talented person who invented this art is greatly to be praised. . . . They can cut and shave the hair and beard with them with the first cutting edge but at the second cutting they lose their edges and therefore another is needed. But the truth is that they are cheap and thus one doesn't mind using them up."
Experimental flintknappers have recently succeeded in re-creating these staples of the Maya toolbox. By tinkering with a variety of chest crutches, hooked pry bars, and foot-operated vises, all based on the Spanish accounts, archaeologists now think they know how obsidian blades were made to such high levels of perfection, conformity, and output.
North American archaeologists knap flint to answer more theoretical questions as well. Which knapping tools -- stone hammers, antler billets, or bone -- did what kind of work? What does the waste pile of flakes tell us about the finished product? Can an individual's signature style be discerned in an object? Was there such a thing as Stone Age "home economics," a standard way of making tools most efficiently with a given size and kind of raw material?
Some archaeologists then take the next step and put their tools to use. …