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.

 

Advertisements

Making an ‘Ishi’ type pressure flaker.

Ishi was a Native American from who much of our understanding of the practicalities of pressure flaking has been gleaned. Within our twice weekly knapping sessions Nick Overton has raised the bar by introducing the use of soft iron nail pressure flakers, similar to those used by Ishi. This is a version of the same with a replaceable point. It is easy to make with total material costs of less than £2.50. Tools needed are a saw, chisel, hammer, large nail and a gimlet. Time wise it takes about half as hour. Materials needed are a bean pole (22mm wide, 75p), two copper end pieces (internal width 22mm, £1.40), one cut flooring nail (60mm long, can’t remember how much, they come in bags of about 20).

1. Use the saw to cut a section of the bean pole to a length that will be comfortable in your hand (perhaps 140mm). Then use the hammer and chisel to split it in half.

Pressure flaker 1

2. Use the cut flooring nail to gouge out a groove on both pieces to fit the nail, and then use the gimlet to bore a small hole on one side to accommodate the head of the nail. Then insert the nail.

Pressure flaker 2

3. Put both pieces together and modify to make a tight fit.

Pressure flaker 3

4. Use the hammer and large nail to punch a hole in one of the copper end pieces and insert it over the nail to hold the pieces of bean pole together.

Pressure flaker 4

5. Stick the second end piece on the other end. These two pieces need to be tight and so some trimming or padding may be needed. When finished the nail needs to be filed to a point and when used, kept sharp. The main benefit of this design is that as the nail gets filed down it can be replaced easily with a new one. When you make one of these, by default you have to then start making Ishi Points. Perhaps that will be the next post!