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Survival Lab: Caveman Skills

No knife? No rope? No problem. For our great-great-great-great-great-great grandfathers, every day was a survival epic, and they fashioned simple blades and cordage from raw wilderness. With a bit of practice, so can you.

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Spear (Photo by Ben Fullerton)


Stone Knife (Photo by Ben Fullerton)


Simple Cord (Photo by Ben Fullerton)

1. Stone knife

You’ll need…

Hammer Grab a spherical hunk of hard, dense rock that fits in the palm of your hand (granite is ideal).

Core Now the hard part: Good blade material such as flint, chert, slate, obsidian, or jasper can be tough to find and identify. Break open stones and look for smooth, ceramic-like grain and arcing, cone-shaped fracturing patterns. Search areas like water edges or cliff bottoms.

Pro tip Clack potential stones together and listen for a high-pitched ring. The closer it sounds to glass, the better a candidate the stone is for a core.

Best uses Razor-thin blades can slice meat, gut fish, and cut cord; when blades go dull, use them to scrape wood for tinder. Larger heads can saw through sticks and even chop wood for fire- or shelter-making.

Key Skill Flint knapping

Chuck a core stone against a boulder. If you’re short on time, the resulting fragments can suffice. To make a formidable, longer-lasting knife, use this technique. (1) Select a half-inch to inch-thick shard to hone. From a sitting position, brace your forearm on your thigh and hold your rough blade parallel to the ground with the edge facing out. (2) With the hammer stone in the other hand, strike a downward, glancing blow on the edge, following through. Sufficient force will break flakes off the bottom of the shard. (Wear shades—or blink when you strike, if you have none—to keep stray chips out of your eyes.) (3) Flip your blade rock and strike flakes off the opposite side. Continue flipping and striking until the blade is sharp enough to shave a fingernail. Pro tip Push a pointed rock or hardened wood along the edge to file off smaller bits.

2. Simple cord

You’ll need…

Natural fibers These are everywhere­—and strong: Indigenous people still build suspension bridges out of grass in South America. Almost any grass or inner tree bark (cambium) that pulls into fibrous strips will work, with varying strength and flexibility (best bets: cedar, willow, cottonwood, cattail, stinging nettle, basswood, fireweed, and yucca). Dead and dry is better (soak it for 10 minutes to up pliability); green shoots may have to be pounded to make the grass flexible. Pull bark out in ribbons and discard the woody, outer layer.

Pro tip
Roll strips to further break down fibers so they can bend without snapping.

Key Skill Wrapping

The reverse wrap is the easiest, oldest way to bind diffuse fibers into durable rope. (1) Using both hands, pinch taut one ribbon or small bundle of fibers in the middle. (2) In a mustache-twirling motion, twist the bundle toward you in your left hand and away from you in your right; the bundle should eventually kink and form a loop. (3) Pinch the resulting Y-junction tight with your left hand so both strands hang to the right. (4) With your right thumb and forefinger, take the further strand and twist away from you one turn. (5) Wrap it over the other strand and pinch the new Y-junction. (6) Repeat using the other strand, occasionally straightening and tightening each new junction. When you run out of ribbon, splice in a new section by twisting it into the existing strand on step 4. Pro tip Several cords can be reverse-wrapped together to make stronger ropes.

3. Spear

Choose an inch-wide stick and split it 2 inches on one end. Shove your flint-knapped blade into the space and tie it in tightly with twine. Pro tip Put a thin layer of moss or lichen to lock the blade in place.

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