Thursday, September 18, 2014

Ultrathin Knife Forms and the SHADOWS ON THE TRAIL TRILOGY

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If you have read my prehistoric adventure series the Shadows on the Trail Trilogy, you know that the Trilogy is about the Folsom prehistoric culture, a mystical group of people that actually existed in North America in the early Holocene between 10,900 to 10,200 years ago. One of the calling cards  the Folsom People left behind was their beautifully crafted fluted projectile points. I have dedicated several postings in my blog to these wonderfully fluted projectile points so I will not cover them in this posting.

Figure one. Four inch long Ultrathin knife form found in Wyoming
and exhibiting thinness, bi-concave x section, great width,
and long, flat flaking. John Branney Collection.

Another artifact that is often attributed to the Folsom People is the ultrathin knife forms. Ultrathin knife forms were specialized stone tools made with a sophisticated knapping technology by highly skilled knappers (Figure one). Archeologists and collectors have defined the specifications for ultrathin knife forms with these attributes: thinness, bi-concave cross section, great width, and a specialized flaking technique. A finished ultrathin knife form was often ovate, pointed or bi-point in shape and outline with well-controlled marginal pressure flaking. Width to thickness ratios for ultrathin knife forms often exceeded 10 or greater. 

Uses of Ultrathin Knife Forms.        

Jodry (1998) noted that ultrathin knife forms were associated with Folsom camps and lithic workshops, not kill sites and initial meat processing sites. Based on use wear, production technology, and archaeological context, Jodry proposed that Folsom people used ultrathin knife forms as filleting knives. Jodry went even further by suggesting the possibility that ultrathin knife forms were ‘women’s knives’. Her case was based on historical Indian tribes where filleting meat was often a woman’s task. Jodry assumed that Paleoindian women may have done the filleting, therefore, ultrathin knife forms may have belonged to the women. Since ultrathin knife
Figure two. 3.5 inch long ultrathin knife form surface
found in Wyoming and exhibiting fine marginal pressure
flaking around the perimeter of the biface.
John Branney Collection.
 forms were so thin and delicate, it would be hard to imagine that Paleoindians used them for anything more rugged and intensive than filleting during the butchering process. Many ultrathin knife forms were so thin and brittle that they would have never survived the more arduous butchering tasks.              

Below, I have captured a passage from my prehistoric adventure novel about the Folsom People called Ghosts of the Heart. This prehistoric adventure is the second novel in the Shadows on the Trail Trilogy. The scene below took place right after the Folsom People trapped and killed a small herd of bison in an arroyo. The scene describes the butchering and harvesting of the meat from the bison carcasses.    

When it was all over, the tribe had killed twenty-two tatanka – bison. The meat from the herd would help the tribe through wani yetu – winter. One of the hunters ran to the camp to tell the people of the tribe. Before long, the entire tribe had returned to help butcher and carry the meat back to the camp. First, everyone in the tribe helped lay all of the carcasses on their bellies with legs sprawled. Then a team of two or three butchers worked on each carcass; while one person held and positioned the carcass, the other person chopped, sawed and cut. The team of butchers then cut the hide lengthwise down the back. They then pulled the hide to the ground on both sides of the carcass, creating a mat that would protect the butchered meat from the ground. The team of butchers extracted the tender cuts of meat under the skin of the back first, followed by the forelegs, shoulders, hump meat, rib cage, and body cavity. They would not waste anything. The team of butchers opened up each body cavity and removed the heart, liver, and gall bladder.

With hammer stones, choppers, and stone knives, the butchers then harvested the hindquarters, hind legs, neck, and skull. As the team of butchers systematically stripped the meat from the carcasses, others carried the meat back to the camp where they cut it into strips and hung it from sagebrush and tree branches to dry. The Folsom People would make pemmican from the meat that was too tough to eat. They then extracted two more delicacies from the skull, the tongue and the brain.

By the time the sun was in the west, the tribe had stripped the tatanka carcasses clean. They would leave any remaining meat for the scavengers of the night. That evening in the camp, there was a grand celebration as the Folsom People celebrated the great hunt.

Although I did not specifically call out ultrathin knife forms in Ghosts of the Heart, that was what the tribe used to cut the bison meat into strips.

Origin of Ultrathin Knife Forms.
There is some evidence that the production of ultrathin knife forms by the Folsom People was

Figure three. From Bradley (1982)

an outgrowth of the Clovis People’s biface reduction process. The use of overshot flakes and the intentional use of hinge and step terminations along the midline of an ultrathin knife form was very close to the process that Clovis People used for biface reduction (Bradley 1982: 203-208).

Bradley described two different thinning methods for biface reduction that both Clovis and Folsom People utilized. He called the first of these thinning methods alternating opposed biface thinning. This method is pictured in the left hand side of Figure three. In this method, initial shaping and thinning of the biface involved the removal of large percussion flakes in a patterned sequence. The knapper began by removing the first large percussion flake from a margin near either end of the biface. Then, the knapper removed another large percussion flake from the same side on the opposite margin near the other end of the biface. The knapper then took off two large percussion flakes next to the first two percussion flakes, but on opposite margins. If the biface needed further thinning, the knapper could remove one or more percussion flakes in the center of the biface. These large percussion flakes often times traveled across the face of the biface, in many cases terminating in outre passe or overshot flakes.
Bradley called the second biface thinning method used by Clovis People and Folsom People opposed diving biface thinning. As thinning on a biface progressed and the biface became narrower and more regularly flaked, the knapper used a different thinning flake at the end of the flaking sequence. This new thinning flake allowed for maximum thinning with less risk of overshot flakes. The knapper accomplished this by removing a sequence of flakes from one margin on one face with intentional hinge-fracture terminations at or near the midline of the biface. These flake scars were

Figure four. 3.32 inches long. Paper thin ultrathin knife form
found in east central Colorado. Highly probable fillet knife.
Note overshot flakes. John Branney Collection.
then met by a series of thinning flakes from the opposite margin, removing most of the hinge terminations and allowing the creation of a biface that was thinner in the middle than on the margins. The cross section of the biface became biconcave. This method is pictured on the right hand side of Figure three.

Once the knapper had thinned the ultrathin knife form to the desire state through percussion flaking, the knapper finished the ultrathin knife form by removing small marginal pressure flakes around all edges of the biface.  
Cautionary Note    

You will notice that in my first paragraph that I did not commit or state that ultrathin knife forms were a diagnostic artifact for the Folsom People, because they are not. Other prehistoric cultures, besides Clovis and Folsom, have made ultrathin knife forms using similar technology with similar results. Paleo and ultrathin knife forms are one of the most over identified artifacts in the collecting world. Every collector claims to have paleo or ultrathin knife forms in their collection. At the same time, most collectors wants more paleo or ultrathin knife forms in their collections. Add into the mix that paleo and ultrathin knife forms are not diagnostic and there ends up being many misidentifications. In reality, most Paleoindians did not go through the bother of creating these delicate ultrathin knife forms, they mostly used large flakes with retouched edges for cutting and knife work.

If an ultrathin knife form is found on the surface of a prairie, river, creek, lake, plowed field or a mountain, it is impossible to determine with 100 per cent accuracy that Folsom People made that particular ultrathin knife form. For that ultrathin knife form to be attributed to Folsom or any other prehistoric culture, the artifact has to be found in dated stratigraphic and archaeological context or in clear association with other diagnostic Folsom or other culturally diagnostic artifacts. Don’t let anyone fool you in believing, otherwise. There are all kinds of claims when it comes to surface found artifacts, but the proof is in the technology used and how/where it was found. Although Folsom people seem to have preferred ultrathin knife forms, that is not enough proof to conclusively assign surface found ultrathin knife forms to that culture.   
Winds of Eden. The third book and finale in the
Shadows on the Trail Trilogy. Click to Order  

Bradley, Bruce
            1982    Flaked Stone Technology and Typology. In The Agate Basin Site: A Record of the Paleoindian Occupation of the Northwestern High Plains, edited by G. C. Frison and D. J. Stanford, pp. 181 – 208. Academic Press, New York.  

Jodry, M.A.
            1998    The Possible Design of Folsom Ultrathin Knife Bifaces as Fillet Knives for Jerky Production. Current Studies in the Pleistocene 15: 75-77.