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.


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.