This topic covers a wide range of actual skills. Primitive living cannot be called a skill in itself, but instead it must be understood that at no time in human history have people been a solitary species. We are a pack animal, we need a clan to survive. The skills necessary to meet the needs of a person are best performed by a people.
The basic needs of wilderness living, are shelter, fire, water, and food, and self expression, in that order. These needs are guided by 2 basic principles. Those of Connection and awareness. These last 2 items are the keystone, they are the parts that hold the whole thing together. Without a keen sense of awareness, awareness of your self, your situation, and your surroundings, and without a strong sense of connection to nature, to yourself,and to your community, you have no chance.
So, what does it take to create a living in “primitive” sense. Let’s start with the basics.
1. Shelter: Shelter is first on our list because exposure poses the most imminent risk to people. We have not evolved with fur or feathers, and most of us don’t have a layer of blubber. In extreme conditions exposure to harsh weather can kill a person in less than 3 hours. Therefore it is the issue that needs to be addressed first. Going back to the last couple centuries people have moved from easily portable shelters such as the teepee, the laavuu, and the yurt. to permanent sedentary structures, that we call houses. Before that time we saw cultures living in pit houses, and thatched huts. We also saw cultures that were constantly on the move and lived in impromptu structures. These are the shelters that we are talking about. There is the Boreal lean to, the debris hut, the wigwam, and so incredibly many more. These structures can be anything from a pile of twigs and branches that we lay atop to insulate us from the cold of the ground, and cover ourselves with furs, to the wigwam, which is an intricate structure of poles and bark. These shelters can take anywhere from a couple hours to an entire day, or more to build. Each time that the people stopped, it was like building a temporary town.
2. Fire: Fire is a huge deal in all of human history. When we achieved the ability to Create and control fire, we acquired the ability to cook meat, which meant we could hunt and kill larger prey with richer meat, and that…. is the time when our brains began evolving into the intellectual powerhouse that it is today. Our earliest handle on fire was to go to the aftermath of a forest fire or lightning strike and pick up coals which could be coaxed into a flame. But sometime around 400,00 years ago. Something happened. Anthropologist Russell Cutts believes that it went something like this: “Perhaps one day a hunter was burnishing his spear on an old tree stump and his mind began to wonder. While he was day dreaming he just kept rubbing his spear on the old dried up wood. After a while, he smelled something. It was familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it. It was….Smoke, the smell from the forest fires, but it had come from his spear. he had made smoke. He probably told his people, but of course they did not believe him. so he kept trying and trying, and then he passed it on to his children, who kept trying, and trying, and what seems like eternity. One of them made a coal, and after another eternity someone turned a coal into fire, which evolved into the hand drill, which evolved into the bow drill. The ability to control fire is the ability to maintain and support life. It keeps us warm, it lights our nights, and cooks our food.
3. Water: Water is the essence of life, of all life. anywhere on this planet without water, there is no life period. We are fortunate enough to live in a place that is rich in water. As far as I know Minnesota has 17,700 bodies of water that are large enough to be considered lakes, and a countless number that are just not quite big enough. Today the only issue that we have is ensuring that we boil or filter our water to make sure it is not polluted or contaminated. In the time of the Mississippians or the hopwellians all they had to do was find water, and drink it. Carrying water could be an issue back then, but these people were far more ingenuic than most of us probably realize. They use hollowed out wood swollen with wetness to carry water, or gourds, or rawhide containers. In the time of the Anasazi, or the Hopi they faced a completely different set of problems, they did not have ready access to water, so they had to find sources miles from their homes and dig canals for miles and miles. Bringing the water to their crops and families. For the purposes of Primitive technology water focuses on the carrying and boiling of water without modern implements. In areas where bamboo grows it is not an issue. You can carry water in bamboo without altering it in any way. You can also boil water in bamboo if you do so carefully so as not to burn the bamboo. There were also clay jugs and pots as far back as 14,000 years ago in china and Japan, and 7-10,000 years ago in the rest of the world. A good clay pot can carry and boil water. You can make a birch bark container that is water tight by sealing the seams with pine pitch or by folding the bark in just the right way. To boil water in bark or in rawhide, you fill your container about half way with water, put clean rocks in a fire, and 1 by 1 add the rocks to the container until your water boils. It comes out a little sooty, but you can drink it.
4. Food: This is a huge subject, and one that will vary wildly from culture to culture. There are a few things that are universal. Everyone has to eat. And, I have never found any substantiated evidence of a vegetarian or vegan pre industrial culture. I have heard rumors of such, but most are either untrue, or related to cultures that had established towns, commerce, and agriculture, which excludes it from the group of pre-industrial aboriginal. All cultures that I am aware of, with the exception of the Inuit, eat some amount of vegetable matter in their diets. The Inuits traditionally ate only raw frozen meat. They had very little wood, therefore very few fires to cook with, and in the climate and landscape of northern Canada, Alaska, and Greenland, it is nearly unthinkable that food worthy vegetation would exist. So, In most cultures, the first, and easiest food to acquire. Another trait that nearly all if not all Indigenous cultures have in common, is that they are INTIMATELY connected to the land and the landscape. We are talking about a level of connection that is essentially un-known in the modern world. These people that we are talking about, were born in nature, grew up spending every minute of their life immersed in nature, and lived their entire life as a part of nature. Knowing every plant every animal, how to find them and what to do with them. Kids would be able identify hundreds of plant species. These food sources were utilized year after year, generation after generation, and never depleted. Here in Minnesota we have dozens of edible and medicinal plant species. From cattails, and wapato, to Raspberries, and maple seeds. Owning this knowledge offers one a sense of confidence and self reliability that is indescribable to most of us. After Vegetation, fish is the next easiest food source to acquire.
There are numerous methods for catching fish primitively. There are weirs, A rock or stick formation in the water intended to funnel the fish into an open area that is controlled by the hunter to make it hard for the fish to escape and easy for the hunter to spear or net them. There are several different types of fish funnel traps. There are spring traps with hooks on them, Trot lines, float lines, fishing poles, etc. Fish are pretty easy to catch, and they are plentiful in much of the world. They are delicious, and very healthy, being high in protein, and fats. The next easiest prey to acquire will be small game.
Rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, etc. These can be trapped or hunted. If you are very skilled you can get small game with a bow and arrow, or a spear, but You One would be well served to learn the art of trapping if acquiring small game is the goal. There are many types of traps that can be employed. Dead falls, spring snares, loop snares, Pits, and an endless supply of designs and techniques from throughout the world. A dead fall is a heavy rock or log balanced atop some sort of trigger system. The most common ones are Figure four, which is important, because it is easy to make and it requires no cordage. Paiute, the easiest and most sensitive trigger. and promontory peg.Which is a little hard to make, but it is a very sensitive trigger, and works well for bird traps. There are also spring snares, which use a bent sapling, or a heavy rock to act as an engine which will (spring) the trap into action, thus killing your prey and lifting them off of the ground where they cannot be reached by other predators. The most common of these are the Twitch up, Which is very versatile, and is one of our go to traps in our teaching. The basic trigger, which is the one that most people teach and learn, but it is basically useless when it comes to actually catching an animal, because they are really tough to trigger. and the T-bar style, which is a really sensitive, but overly complicated trap trigger. There are literally hundreds of styles of spring snare, but essentially they all work the same. A loop snare, or noose snare, is simply a slip knot placed at such a height and in such a place as to ensnare the neck of a particular size and type of animal, and as the animal pulls the loop gets tighter and suffocates the animal. These are great for things like squirrels and rabbits, but aren’t great for larger or smarter animal. You can place several of them on a diagonally leaned pole, which is then placed near an oak tree and as squirrels attempt to climb up, they become ensnared. A pit trap is literally a hole in the ground placed in such a way as to encourage the prey to fall in.
The most difficult food sources to acquire would be Large game and birds. Hunting large game takes a lot of skill and practice. To hunt large game you would use a bow and arrow, or an atl atl, or a spear. You would need to learn everything about the intended game, when they eat at what time of year, what they eat at what time of year. How and when they mate. Where they mate. Their migration routes, Their sleep habits. Where do they drink, how much do they drink. etc. Once you have learned everything that their is to know about your intended prey you need to either learn to track well enough to find a trail and follow it to the animal or you need to set up an ambush spot. You will then wait until your game approaches to within a workable distance and take your shot. Or you can spot and stalk, which means walk around and look for an animal and when you see one, slow down to a stalk and sneak up on the animal until you are within range. Birds are a whole other monster. With birds you need to learn all of the things that you learned about your big game, then be able to a small very fast moving target.
Primitive life included much more than just brutish day to day survival, It wasn’t just a constant search for food. People began making artistic advances as early as 75,000 years ago. In the form of shell beads and petroglyphs. Life certainly revolved around the 4 needs; Shelter Fire, water, and food, but the advances that made us really become human, had a lot more to do with creative expression. Often around the search for food, or shelter. Cordage is a great example. This seemingly simple discovery completely changed the game for our ancestors. Unfortunately plant fibers don’t stand up well with time. There are, however, a few examples of cordage that have survived that we know are at least 7-10,000 years old. Otzi the iceman had on shoes that were reverse wrapped basswood bark. Cordage as we will mean it here. is a plant or animal fiber that is reverse wrapped into string or rope. A reverse wrap includes twisting a bundle of fibers in one direction and then wrapping them in the opposite direction around another bundle that is twisted in the same direction. This simple invention made tying shelters easier and faster, it made bows strings stronger and longer lasting, everything became easier and more convenient. At one point in time, this was the most advanced technology on the planet.
Then there is flint knapping. Flint knapping is the method of breaking small pieces off of a larger stone in a specific order and pattern to create a sharp and strong cutting tool. Whether it be a knife or an arrowhead, or whatever. This is an art that began millions of years ago and is still evolving today. The earliest stone tools were likely A stone picked up off of the ground and used to smash something, or a rock picked up that was already sharp and used to cut or scrape some material or food source. Soon there after they would have discovered that if they broke a stone by smashing it on another stone that it would create sharp cutting edges and points. The first known tools to come on the scene were the oldowan chopper (1.5-2.5 million years ago/Tanzania. Australopithecus Garhi or homo habilus) The Acheulian Hand axe (900,000-1.8 million years ago/All of Africa, south and west Asia, Southern Europe. Homo Ergaster, Homo Erectus) and The Abevellian hand axe (424,000-700,000 years ago/All of Africa, All of Asia, and most of Europe, though this designation in some circles is only used t describe European tools. Homo Erectus, Homo Neanderthalensis, Homo sapiens) These tools were simple and required very little work, though considering the time periods in question, the technology was amazing. After that time period the technology blew up, and in different parts of the world different technologies became the norm. We had the levallois technology in northern Africa, western Asia, and southern Europe around 335,000 years ago, the mousterian 40,000-160,000 years ago, thought to be neanderthal in origin, central Europe. We had the solutrean in France around 20,000-30,000 years ago made by homo sapiens, and the clovis technology around 10,000 years ago in south west United States. These just scratch the surface of the tools and techniques that existed over time, and now we have artists doing amazing things to rocks with very simple tools. The art of Flint knapping is an ever evolving, and far from dead art.
Other such arts include Pottery, Basket making, Weaving, Bone tool making, Pecking and grinding, Ground stone technology, Hide tanning, Cave painting, and a never ending list of more and more to the end of the human imagination.
Pottery: The earliest use of clay as pottery is in China and Japan around 14,000 B.C.”long before they started farming. Probably people had always known how to make pottery, but just hadn’t done it much. This early pottery was made by just pushing a hole into a ball of clay, or by making a long snake of clay and coiling it up into a pot shape”-Emanuel Cooper, 10,000 years of pottery.
The earliest known Use of pottery in the Americas was around 5,500 B.C. in Brazil. They were packing fish in Clay to ferment it. In north America We see the Mississippians Using Pottery between 800-1600 B.C. and The Hopewellians using Pottery Between 200-400 B.C. It is likely that there was pottery being made and used in North America long before that, But if clay is not fired or tempered properly it is very difficult to identify. There is some evidence of fire hardened clay Tempered with plant fibers possibly as much as 2,000 B.C. and in the S.W. United States it may have been much much older. Finally the Inuits, or Inupiats may have been using Shell in A pottery type way as much as 10,000 years ago.
Pottery may have started out as a simple vessels for storing or fermenting food, but very quickly clay pots turned into amazing works of art. Reflecting the care given to their manufacture in nearly every known human civilization. The anasazi in some regards are known as the masters of pottery. They have made some of the most beautiful pieces that are also fully functional
Basket Making: Basket weaving (also basketry or basket making) is the process of weaving or sewing pliable materials into two- or three dimensional artifacts, such as mats or containers.
Making baskets is another skill that has been perfected around the world by dozens or hundreds of cultures. Here in Minnesota we have some of the best basket makers in the world. The Ojibwe Basket makers were incredibly innovative and skilled. They have a basket called a wiigwaasi-makak. We call it a makuk.
It is made of birch bark, sewn together with split spruce root, and sealed with pitch glue. They are used to store Maple sugar, and the preservative properties of the birch help keep the sugar fish and stave of insects.
Baskets ave been made from different barks barks including Birch, Elm, Willow, Basswood, Spruce, Ash, and many others. Baskets have also been woven from roots, branches, split stems, and fibers. There are as many variations on basketry as there are on any subject that revolves around nature.
Bone tools are a subject of particular interest to me. A good friend of mine Wad Miller was an amateur archeologist, studying the history of Minnesota. He was on the team that discovered the Pine City Fur post. Here in Minnesota we find very few stone points and blades compared to other areas of the country. Wad believed, as do I that because the stone that is abundantly present here, the there was very little flint knapping. Therefore, most likely the earliest people of Minnesota were making there points and blades out of bone. Bone is very strong and can be honed to a fine edge. Bone also biodegrades, which is one possible reason that we don’t find many artifacts. The oldest excavated bone tools are from Africa, dated to about 1.5 million years ago. It is widely accepted that they appeared and developed in Africa before any other geographic region. A very famous excavation of bone tools is that of the Blombos Cave in South Africa. A collection of twenty-eight bone tools were recovered from 70 thousand year old Middle Stone Age levels at Blombos Cave. Careful analyses of these tools reveal that formal production methods were used to create awls and projectile points.
Commonly we find Awls, Arrowheads, Knives, Buttons, Spear points, Needles, Needle cases, and many man ymore are all commonly made from bone, all around the world.
Pecking and grinding is the process of working a semi hard stone such as Green stone, or granite into an usable axe or other tool, by strategically striking a harder stone against it in a predetermined pattern to remove small particles of stone, thus changing the shape of the original into something close to the intended final shape. When the stone gets close to the intended shape, the maker then grinds the piece on a slab of wettened sand stone until it is polished into a finished tool. Ground stone tools show up in Europe and Africa around 25,000 years ago, but it is believed that the technology was used in Japan long before that time. Here in Minnesota this technology is probably at least 2,000 years old, around the time when copper mining on Lake Superior is thought to have started.
At this point at least some of you are probably wondering how this applies to you.In the roughly 7 million year history of Right now is the first time that a majority of people have little or no discernible connection to Nature. We have built a world around us in which man ypeople feel that nature is not necessary, or some sort of abstract concept. This is not only sad, but also dangerous. It is said that people will only protect what they love. We need to love nature, and we need to protect it. The seperation that has taken place in the last 50 years or so is already showing it’s dark side.
nature-deficit disorder contributes to a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses. Research also suggests that the nature-deficit weakens ecological literacy and stewardship of the natural world. These problems are linked more broadly to what health care experts call the “epidemic of inactivity,” and to a devaluing of independent play. Richard Louv.
In a world where anything that you could ever want to know is at your finger tips, it becomes of the utmost importance to focus on maintaining knowledge and experience. What kind of life is left when we don’t have to do anything or go anywhere? Need food, use your cell phone, have a question, ask your cell phone, need help, ask your cell phone. What we are seeing is sky rocketing diagnoses of Adhd, Anxiety, and depression. Mental health disorders are being fueled by a lack of personal connection in our day to day lives. In all of human history societies have been close knit. Everyone had a place and they knew their role. Cultures took care of people, and held their space for them. Now we intentionally separate ourselves from each other. we do everything in our power to not have to get to know people, to not have to meet people. Most of us, could not feed ourselves with out restaurants and grocery stores. Already we are at a point when many people cant even cook for themselves.
The rewilding movement is growing and gaining popularity throughout the world. Let me clarify. If you give up all of modern life and become a monk in the woods; you are a rewilder. If you are a person who work sin an office in downtown, and you decide to spend your free time outside, and try to get to know nature, and your own wildness a little bit; you are a rewilder, and anything in between counts. I like air conditioning, and my cell phone. I love sushi, and pizza. I have no desire to give these things up. But, the wilderness is the most important thing to me. I know that it is home, I am as much a part of it, as a fox or a deer. We all are. We are part of the food chain, we are part of the natural order, and we are nature. We just need to know this. We need to incorporate it into our lives. Shinrin Yoku or Forest Bathing has been shown to have a plethora of health benefits, lowered anxiety, lower blood pressure, Increased awareness, just to name a few, and literally, Shinrin Yoku is the act of walking in nature, and turning off your thinking mind and being in your awareness. Think of your mind as a 2 part machine, there is the thinking, remembering, feeling part, and your awareness. Picture a landscape full of little balls. Each ball is a thought or a memory and yu can place your awareness on any ball that you choose. You can also place your awareness on NOW. no thoughts or memories, just awareness. But, this takes practice. Insert awareness exercise.
Now to bring this back to primitive living skills. This awareness minded rewilding mind needs to be worked out, Your body needs push ups, your mind needs exercise to. Being in nature, practicing earth based living skills, immerses us into a real world a world where we know that we need to be a part of this, it gives us the confidence to move forth in our daily lives. When we Practice primitive living skills it connects us to our ancestors, and helps us feel like we belong again. These skills are our human birthrite. They predate all ideas of race, or nationallity. They predate, any religion or country. They bring us to a time when all people were simply, People. Which is the truth today as much as ever, We have just forgotten it.