Ishi the last Yahi: a documentary history.

Ishi, the person 001

Many thanks to Elizabeth Healey for lending me two really interesting texts. This post is about one of these, the above book which as the sub title indicates, documents the recorded aspects of Ishi’s life. I like this photograph because it shows Ishi as a person, not simply “the last Aboriginal Savage“, and because of the focus of this blog, of particular interest here are the documents recording his toolkit.

ishi toolkit 002

The above inventory is presented on page 184. Number one is an Ishi stick, although from a differing culture group and earlier period than Ishi. The emphasis is on length and I haven’t fully grasped the bio-mechanics of how this might help with pressure flaking. Perhaps I will be able to explore this in a later post. Number two is a long piece of wire (3/16 ths of an inch / 4.8mm) that has been hafted and sharpened. This seems to be a very similar tool to the Australian aboriginal No 8 wire (see here)  used for making Kimbnerley Points. Number three is described as a slender nail hafted, sharpened and used for the finer work of notching (Heizer & Kroeber 1979: 170). Finally there are examples of Ishi’s work, with the longer pieces made as show pieces. Here again  is a parallel with the Australian aboriginal Kimberley Points, with the larger glass examples becoming media for trade and exchange, and particularly valued by European collectors. These pieces are really interesting in that they capture and embody a particular indigenous skillset, but it is a modified and abstracted version to take advantage of new materials that allow the marshalling of different qualities (size and transparency).

ishi pressure flaking

This final image shows Ishi’s pressure flaking method. Most modern knappers I have observed use their thighs in order to provide stability and generate power to remove the flake. I have some good footage of Karl Lee doing just this and I will edit and add this very soon. I wonder if this was Ishi’s actual knapping position, or staged for the photograph in order to show the position of pressure flaker in relation to margin? This choice of bodily positioning is fascinating in its own right and again needs more exploration. Finally, on Youtube I like Flintknapper Jimmy and his approach to understanding how Ishi actually knapped. From a museum visit he has looked at Ishi’s actual tools, preforms and points in order to interpret his process. He uses an indigenous toolkit as well as a glass cutter, because that is what Ishi did. Look at his pressure flaking tool in comparison to the photograph presented above  (Ishi’s knapping approach). See what you think.

Heizer, R.F. and Kroeber, T. eds., 1979. Ishi, the last Yahi: a documentary history. University of California Press.

 

A test run for the Ishi Stick, and a ‘tough break’

Since getting together with John, Rob and a few others for our regular knapping sessions, pressure flaking has become a bit of an obsession for me-in particular, working pre-cut glass slabs into points of various sizes.  Key to this is taking a good first set of pressure flakes, to remove all of the original surface-an end result that is ‘fully invasive’ has become somewhat of a holy grail for me over the last few weeks. To that end, I decided to make an Ishi stick out of a chair leg John donated-a number of the knappers on youtube, including palaeomanjim, seem to use them for their larger pressure flake removals, and the general idea is the longer handle allows more power to be applied, thus removing longer flakes.

The construction of the Ishi stick is very similar to the Ishi style pressure flakers John discussed a few posts ago-I split the lower part of the chair leg, cut a groove for the nail, and carved a collar to locate the copper cap, and another recessed section, which I bound with string to secure the whole thing. Initial attempts to use the Ishi stick were a little shaky, and overall it felt a little odd, as the long handle runs up the forearm and braces the wrist.  However, once used to it, it allowed a more controlled application of power, and resulted in some excellent long pressure flakes.

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Detail of the Ishi stick at the business end

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The Ishi stick (top) and the Ishi style pressure flaker

However, as the often uttered phrase goes, with great power, comes great responsibility.  In this case, a responsibility to pick the correct platforms, and a responsibility to control the removal process and avoid unnecessary force.  On this first outing of the Ishi stick, it was a lesson I learnt the hard way, breaking every piece I started. But, there is a lesson to learn in every mistake-on reflection, all of the breakages occurred at the same point in the point-making process. I had successfully removed the plate glass surface with the first pass of pressure flaking using the Ishi stick, and I had returned to take a second set off, using the high spots left in between the pressure flake scars taken in the first pass as platforms. I used both the Ishi stick, and the Ishi style pressure flaker for this stage on different pieces, but both resulted in the piece ending in two bits.

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Good invasive removals from the blank, but both broke in the middle

At this moment in time, I have yet to decide whether this is because I am putting too much force into this second set of removals, because my technique is exerting too much ‘bending’ force on the piece (exerting a force along the axis of its thickness, as opposed to across its width), or whether the pad I am using for pressure flaking, with a groove to allow a free pressure flake removal, is not offering enough support.

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My pressure flaking pad and one of the broken pieces. Is the groove in the pad too big to support a piece this size?

So our next knapping session on Thursday will see a new three-fold approach: 1) Removal of the first set of flakes using the Ishi stick and pressure flaker pad. 2) Good platform preparation (or re-preparation). 3) Removal of second set of pressure flakes using the Ishi style pressure flaker, and a new pressure flaking pad with a smaller groove, so as to offer extra support.

As John said at the end of his last post, I am sure we will be making a few more of these-for me, it’s fully invasive or bust!

First Ishi point.

I am very interested in the story of Ishi, not just from a lithic technology perspective, but also the tragedy of it. For anyone else interested there is a documentary on Youtube, Ishi, The Last Yahi. In our knapping session tonight we had an Ishi focus, Nick has made an Ishi stick, which he tested out (I will get him to post about this), I used my Ishi style flaker to make a point. For the later part of his life Ishi lived and worked (as a ‘Stone Age remnant’) within the University of California, Berkeley, Museum of Anthropology demonstrating his Stone Age skills to the public. He adapted to new materials and used a glass cutter to produce blanks, and nails within his pressure flaker. This is my first attempt at this kind of point. It is made on a flat slab of fishtank glass supplied by Rob Howarth. The size, and retouch has worked well, but I ran into problems with the notching. I am thinking that another nail, filed to a very thin point might work better. If I do this I can fit it onto the other end of my flaker.

Ishi 2

I think I will be making a few more of these.