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MIKE KEELER: Here’s A Little Challenge For You

The next part is quite a bit harder. Find a second stone that has a very sharp edge to it. Sharp enough that you could cut a plant stem or small twig with it. OK? Now, take that sharp-edged stone and carefully but forcefully whack the edge of your flat stone so that some of that chips off and leaves a sharp edge. Chances are, when you first try this, your sharp-edged stone is too brittle and breaks apart instead of chipping the flat stone. So you’ve got to go find another, harder, sharp-edged stone.

But let’s say you are lucky and your sharp-edged stone is hard enough and is doing a good job chipping off the edge of the flat stone. So keep going, one little whack at a time, slowly working your way around that rectangular flat stone, making a sharp edge all around it. But, most likely, you’ll soon have another problem. You’ll hit your flat stone too hard – it’s pretty skinny after all – and you don’t just chip off the edge of it, you end up breaking it in two. You have to start this whole process over. Try again.

The next time, you might look for a different kind of stone, one that hopefully won’t break in half when you hit it too hard. And then you try again to chip an edge all around it. Unfortunately, you probably won’t be successful since what you are trying to do – sharpening one stone by chipping at it with another stone – is pretty much impossible. In fact, no one has ever succeeded in doing it.

So why would you even try? Well, imagine that you are a primitive hunter-gatherer from a long time ago. Other than the rags on your back, you own next to nothing. You have no modern tools, no Swiss army knife, in fact no metal objects of any kind. You survive by searching through the plains and forests for anything that you can eat. Maybe you find a bunch of nuts that have fallen from a tree, or a patch of not-very-ripe raspberries. You might get lucky and come upon a bird’s nest with eggs in it. Yum. If you are ambitious, or really hungry, you might try to catch a small animal like a squirrel or a rabbit, and strangle it with your bare hands.

Congratulations, you have killed a squirrel. Unfortunately, that dead squirrel gives you a new problem: how do you cut it up and eat it? Luckily, the answer comes from the squirrel itself or, more accurately, from a previous squirrel you might have killed a few days ago. After you strangled that one, you might have pulled the fur off and kept it, because you have learned that fur can keep you warm in the winter. And as you ate that squirrel, you may have saved some of the bones, especially the sharp ones like the ribs, because you have learned they can be used to cut up all the squirrels you might strangle in the future. And once you have collected some fur and very sharp bones, you might be able to find a skinny vine which you can use as a kind of thread to sew together a bunch of pieces of fur you have collected, into a kind of bag, in which you can keep all the valuable things like fur and bones that you find as you continue your never-ending search for food. Wow, look at that! Now you have a tool bag. See how all this works?

Sometime long ago, someone like you was walking along with their bag of fur and squirrel bones, when they may have come upon a much bigger opportunity. Perhaps this person was searching for something to eat when they came upon a larger animal, like a groundhog, or a fox, or even a wolf. And maybe that larger animal was sick, or dying, or stuck in a muddy waterhole unable to get out. And the person realized that this larger animal would provide a lot of tasty meat and warm fur and useful sharp bones if they could kill it.

The problem was, of course, that a wild animal is a wild animal, even if it’s sick or dying, and you don’t want to get too close to it. So maybe that person picked up a few good-sized rocks and tried to stone the animal to death from a short distance. Maybe after a few good hard tosses they hit the animal in the head a couple times and knocked it cold. But still, you gotta be careful. So maybe the person looked around for a different rock, a nice-sized stone that they could hold firmly in their hand, which also might have a sharp edge on one end of it. And, using that stone, they crept carefully up to the barely-alive animal, raised their hand high over their head, and brought it down hard on the animal’s skull. Maybe just once. Or maybe they had to do it a bunch of times. But, finally – KA-CHUNK! – they did the animal in. They were now hunting at a whole new level.

Later, while they were enjoying a really nice big meal of delicious wolf-meat, here’s what that long-ago person might have thought next. “I want to kill bigger meals. But bigger animals are dangerous. I need a way to get the sharp rocks into the bigger animals without getting any closer to them.”

And that’s when it happened. Somebody thought, “I need a spear.”

Nobody knows who that somebody was, but we have some idea where they had this amazing realization. Not too long ago, scientists who were digging in the desert of the American southwest came upon a pile of old bones of large animals like woolly mammoths buried all together in a heap. And as they excavated the pile they found that many of the bones had been scarred by sharp objects. And as they searched further, they found some of the actual sharp objects mixed in with the bones. In some cases they were still stuck in the bones from when ancient long-ago people jammed them in there.

The sharp objects were flat stones that measured about 4 inches long by 2 inches wide. The stones had been carefully chipped until their sides were very sharp, and the front edge of the stone had been narrowed into a nasty point. On the back end of the stone, opposite the pointy end, a little channel had been notched out of it, so that a good-sized stick could sit in that and perhaps be tied to the stone with a piece of leather. The scientists figured that if somebody attached a short stick to one of these pointy stones it would make a nice little knife. Or a longer stick would turn the point into a handy spear, which a person could use to stab an animal from several feet away, or even by throwing it a short distance.

The place where this discovery was made was a town in New Mexico called Clovis. And so the scientists named these ingenious man-made stone tools that they had found ‘Clovis Points.’ And as soon as other scientists heard about this amazing discovery, they all ran out to other excavations that were going on to see if they could find any other evidence of them. And they found them. Lots of them. They found Clovis Points in Idaho and Montana, through Colorado, in Texas, and even down in Mexico.

But here’s the thing: though scientists have searched and searched, they haven’t found Clovis Points outside the Americas. Most folks believe that the first Americans came here across the Bering Strait from what is now Russia. During the Ice Age, much of the water in the world was frozen in arctic glaciers, and the sea levels fell hundreds of feet, creating a land bridge to Alaska. If folks walked over here from over there, perhaps they had learned to make Clovis Points long ago in Siberia and simply carried that idea with them. So scientists searched on the Siberian side of the land bridge and found…no Clovis Points. They have only been found in America.

And here’s another thing: about the time that Clovis Points were first being used in America, there was a decimation of some of the largest animals on the continent. Creatures like giant sloths, mastodons, camels, and even saber-toothed tigers were just here today, gone tomorrow. It’s likely that Clovis Points were so effective that the earliest Americans wiped out most of the large animals around them, in very short order.

And one more thing: the idea spread like mad. The earliest Americans had arrived here with no other humans to challenge them, so it was pure opportunity, and they jumped on it. They ventured into new places, killed what they found there, ate their fill, and moved on. In just a few thousand years they had spread across the entire hemisphere, south all the way to Patagonia, and east all the way to the Atlantic. Killing a lot of the big animals as they went.

So, let’s go back to the beginning and that stone-challenge. You probably have realized that making a stone point is really hard. You probably just gave up. After all, what’s the use?

Well, now we know why it was so important. Whoever it was at Clovis who first figured out how to do it was able to completely change their fortunes. With such a weapon, they transformed themselves from desperate grubby little scroungers into proud upstanding hunter dudes. And they were able to go out and conquer the world.

All of which means that the first truly American invention was a completely awesome killing device.

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