Scary Thing: Bears

A Terrifying Bear Attack

So, this month I finally watched The Revenant. (It’s been out since 2015.)

The way the movie usually gets summarized is, “Leonardo DiCaprio’s character gets mauled by a bear, and his companions leave him for dead.”

Well, they don’t exactly leave him for dead. There is a lot of back and forth. There is money involved, and racial tensions, plus the difficulty of carrying a grievously injured man through rough country on a litter. But yes, basically, he does end up getting left for dead at some point, after efforts have been made to save him (and other efforts to finish him off).

Anyway, after watching, the big question in my mind was the same as in everyone else’s after seeing the movie: How in the world did they film the scene where he gets mauled by a bear?

It looks really real. I have embedded a YouTube clip of it at the end of this section, which you can watch if you have the stomach for it. At one point, the bear steps on the supine man’s head, stretches its neck forward, and snuffles directly at the camera. The glass fogs up from its breath.

Please tell me they didn’t use a real bear.

The first step, of course, was to study the credits carefully. Let’s see … Native American and First Nations acting agency … thanks to the Pawnee and Arikara nations … cultural consultants …. this stuff is fascinating. (One thing I loved about the movie was that subtitles, not dubbing, were used whenever characters were speaking Arikara, Pawnee, or French.) Oh, here it is. Animal wranglers. Wolves supplied by. Horses supplied by. Eagle supplied by. Hmm. There were no actual bears mentioned, but there were “animal puppeteers” and tons of animators.

It looks like it wasn’t a real bear.

Next step: Google. I found this article, where I learned that no, it wasn’t a real bear. It was a man in a blue suit. Even so, it took them four days just to shoot the six-minute scene, and then the bear’s muscles, skin, and fur had to be animated in separate layers.

The other disturbing thing was this: the only reason they didn’t use a real bear, was that captive bears nowadays are all too fat to be realistic.

I think that was a good move on their part.

Watch it if you dare.

Yes, in some ways the violent and unscrupulous humans are scarier, but actually … no. They are not. The scariest thing is the bear.

Euphemisms for Bear

It may surprise you to learn that the English word bear is not actually the original Indo-European word. It is a euphemism. The word used by the Indo-European ancestors, on the Ukrainian plains, was something like hrtko. My Indo-European dictionary explains in a sidebar:

The Proto-Indo-European word for “bear,” rtko-, was inherited in Hittite hartaggash, Sanskrit rksah, Greek arktos, Latin ursus, and Old Irish art.

But in the northern branches [of the Indo-European language family], the word has undergone taboo replacement. The names of wild animals are often taboo to hunters … Among the new expressions for “bear” were “the good calf” in Irish, “honey pig” in Welsh, “honey eater” in Russian, and “the licker” in Lithuanian. English “bear” and its other German cognates are also the result of taboo replacement, as etymologically they mean “the brown one.” (see bher-)

The American Heritage dictionary of Indo-European Roots, p. 74

(In case any linguistics purists are reading this, I should note that important diacritic marks are missing from the Indo-European, Hittite, and Sanskrit words in this quote.)

We can imagine that there were a number of terrifying attacks behind this taboo replacement. Or perhaps there was just one, well- (or horribly-) timed one, early in the northern Indo-Europeans’ journey towards their eventual homelands.

So, here are some euphemisms for bear:

  • bear/bruin (“the brown one”)
  • Beowulf (“bee-wolf”)
  • Medved (“honey eater”) (honey = mead)

In my books, the family ends up calling bears “the bad one.”

I like bears. But only as an idea. As actual creatures, they have earned their place on this October’s list of … Scary Things.

Weed of the Week

(Sounds better than Wildflower of the Week, don’t you think?)

This … is Rubber Rabbitbrush. Or, as I like to call it, “False Yellow Sage.” Or maybe, “Not Actually Yellow Sage, Dummy.” (I am getting the hang of this botany thing. You can just make up any descriptive name, pretty much.)

When I first started noticing this species, I naturally assumed it was some yellow-flowered variety of sagebrush. Reason: it is the same general size, shape, and even color as Silver Sagebrush, and it grows everywhere that Silver Sagebrush does.


Here it is growing happily interspersed with Silver Sagebrush, overlooking the spectacular views of Baker, Oregon. But it doesn’t only do this in Baker. It does it in Idaho as well. I see it doing this sneaky little trick everywhere.

Assuming, as I did, that this was some kind of sagebrush, I was completely stymied when I could find it nowhere in my trusty Central Rocky Mountain Wildflowers guide, by the illustrious H. Wayne Phillips. Not under Sage or Yellow Sage. Not even in the “yellow flowers” section (the guide is arranged by color). There was no way, I thought, that it wasn’t native to the area. Look at how deserty it looks!

Anyway. long story short, it’s Rabbitbrush. And here is a partial excuse for why I couldn’t identify it until after my trip to Baker. The photograph in the guide shows the leaves looking very grey, as in the first picture above. But most of the Rabbitbrushes that grow around my house look much more green. I had to go to the Oregon Trail Museum in Baker and see, growing around it, an awful lot of different individuals of these plants, in all stages of growth, before I could understand what I was looking at.

For example, here it is when very young.

By the time it is dying, it just looks like hairy brown sticks with dry yellow puffballs on top.

The guidebook says,

Ericameria nauseosa, Aster family. Previously known as Chrysothamnus nauseous. Nauseosus implies that the plant produces sickness or nausea. Jackrabbits often hide under the cover of rabbitbrush to conceal themselves from the watchful eyes of golden eagles soaring overhead. The Shoshone people of Nevada use the plant to stop diarrhea and as a remedy for coughs and colds. The Cheyenne used it to relieve itching and treat smallpox.

Central Rocky Mountain Wildflowers, p. 107

“Don’t Eat My Family”

Here is Ikash, who was a teenager when he was the protagonist of my novel The Strange Land. Now he is a husband and father, and he is doing what husbands and fathers do … trying to protect his family from the scary things in the world. (Of course Hyuna could help with this too, but as you can see, she recently had a baby, so she needs him to do the heavy lifting.)

This exact scene does not happen in my third book (at least not yet!), but it does illustrate his basic stance throughout that novel.

The black and white drawing did not scan great … a lot of detail was lost … but I needed something to post.

Are you perhaps feeling like this right now?

Betataki Cliff Dwelling, Nestled in Its Valley

Betataki 4
Here is the painting.

Betataki 2
Here is what it looks like on the wall. It is 12×24″.

Betataki Cliff Dwelling is located at what is now the Navajo National Monument. Rand McNally, who kindly alerted me to its presence, won’t allow me to post a copy of a page from their atlas. However, if you want to find this somewhat out-of-the-way place, head north from Phoenix on I-17. Continue north as the highway becomes 89, then get off at the turnoff for 160, signs for Tuba City. 160 cuts northeast across Navajo country. About 75 miles past Tuba City (and just before Kayenta), you’ll see signs for the Navajo National Monument. It’s on the north side of the road. Like every good national park, there is a small museum/gift shop/information center, where you can obtain maps for walking the various trails.

The trail to Betataki is a short, easy hike: about an hour round trip to and from the overlook. You cannot approach the cliff dwelling itself, but there is a viewing platform that allows you to look across the canyon. When you do, this painting is roughly what you will see.

Navajo 4 Pueblo

Here is a crude, cell-phone-picture close-up of the cliff dwelling. As you can see, it’s under the large arch on the left side of the painting.

We were there on a grey, snowy day. I didn’t plan it this way, but I love the contrast the snow and the cold grey colors of sky and vegetation make with the red-rock desert.

For those keeping track, Kachina Bridge is about one day’s drive north of Betataki. It’s in Natural Bridges National Monument in southeastern Utah.  This is simply a huge culture area.

Finally Read This

TBR Naya Nuki
Naya Nuki by Kenneth Thomasma, Grandview Publishing Co., Jackson, Wyoming, 1983

This children’s book is based on actual events. At the age of eleven, Naya Nuki and her friend Sacajawea (yes, that Sacajawea) were kidnapped during a raid and marched about 1,000 miles to the east, into what is now North Dakota, to serve as slaves of the more prosperous Minnetare.

Naya Nuki determines to escape. She begins preparing before the outbound journey is even over, memorizing landmarks and so on. (Luckily, in order to get back to her home country, she basically just has to follow the Missouri River.) She then busies herself being a model prisoner, while also obtaining and hiding the things she will need for her journey, such as a buffalo robe (basically, a winter coat/sleeping bag), moccasins, extra food, and even a knife.

Sacajawea isn’t interested in trying to escape, being fairly sure that the girls will be quickly run down and killed by their captors. Shortly before Naya Nuki’s escape, Sacajawea tells her that she has been sold to a white man. (I knew Sacajawea was married to a Frenchman, and I’d always wondered whether it was a romantic interracial love match. Turns out, not so much.)

Naya Nuki cleverly waits for a stormy night to escape. She travels by night at first in case she is being tracked and continues to think like a fugitive throughout her journey. Once she gets well out of range of her captors, she then “only” has to deal with things like illness, snowstorms, and even a grizzly bear.

This little eleven-year-old girl walks all the way back to her people. She seems so capable throughout most of the book. It’s not until the end, when she and her mother are crying and embracing, that she seems like a little girl again. Her people change her name to Naya Nuki, which means Girl Who Ran. We don’t know what her name was before that, so Thomasma calls her Naya Nuki throughout the book.

Four years later, Sacajawea shows up at the Shoshoni camp again, this time in the company of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and carrying the baby she had with her French husband, Charbonneau.

I’ve always admired Sacajawea for making that journey with a baby, but Naya Nuki … wow.

Here are some charts I’ve created to illustrate my reaction to this true story.

Strength Chart

Naya Nuki, while a lot physically stronger than yours truly, is still an eleven-year-old girl, not a grown man. She doesn’t have unlimited strength, speed, or endurance.

Toughness Chart

But her mental toughness knows no bounds.

Amazing Person of the Week

All night Naya Nuki ran at a steady pace, with short periods of walking that served as rest periods. At every stream she drank small amounts of water. She ate no food and would go without food as long as possible. As a Shoshoni Indian, she was used to having only three or four meals a week when times were hard. Now Naya Nuki would call on all her past experiences to help her survive her long and difficult journey back to her people.

Naya Nuki, Shoshoni Girl Who Ran, by Kenneth Thomasma, p. 61

Kachina Bridge Series

Kachina Bridge is huge natural stone bridge located in southern Utah. It has petroglyphs dibbled onto it. I was able to visit it last November, took a million pictures, fell in love. Here are some views of it from the back.

The photograph. The stripes are water/mineral staining.
First painting of it
Second painting of it, done on a smaller canvas (8×10)

The more vibrant colors in the painting are closer to how I remember it looking real life, especially the warm glow.

Now, zooming out from the arch, let’s go down the path behind it, turn, and look back:

In the upper left corner of this painting, you can see the portion of the arch that the earlier paintings are close-ups of.

Next time: Kachina Bridge from the front!

The Maya Microcosm of Humanity

The Maya flourished between approximately 1000 BC and 1500 AD in Central America. Their civilization was centered in the Yucatan Peninsula and the lowland and hilly regions south of it. Their sites are found in what are now the countries of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.

There is so much to learn about the Maya. I have barely dipped my toe in it. As always when learning about a new culture or civilization, I was met with the thrill of the exotic followed by a creeping feeling of familiarity. Though the Maya are very unique, in their own distinctly Mayan way they also epitomize certain things about human beings. In some sense, the more unique they are, the better they epitomize it.

They Are Surprising to Other People

I don’t know why, but people always get excited when they discover other people. (Animals get excited too: “Oh goody! A person!”)  And we are always discovering other people, in the most remote corners of space and time, where for some reason we did not expect to find them, though you would think we’d have learned our lesson by now.

The Maya were particularly hard to find because of the geography of the region they inhabited. Jungle is not kind to the preservation of buildings or artifacts. It destroys things quickly, grows over things and hides them, and can make the region impassable.

Tree destroying a stone arch. From Mysteries of the Ancient Americas, p. 165

A really thick jungle allows no roads through it, and once they arrived, here is what some of the archaeologists found:

“The rain was incessant,” Charnay complained. “The damp seems to penetrate the very marrow of our bones; a vegetable mould settles on our hats which we are obliged to brush off daily; we live in mud, we are covered in mud, we breathe in mud; the ground is so slippery that we are as often on our backs as on our feet.” Once Charnay awakened to find 200 “cold and flat insects the size of a large cockroach” in his hammock, 30 of which clung to his body and bit him painfully.

The Magnificent Maya, p. 22

They Got Romanticized

In the early 1500s, during the Spanish conquest of the region, Spanish priests managed to preserve some Mayan cultural data – vocabulary lists, transcriptions of myths, and a few codices (books) – at the same time they were brutally wiping the culture out. These records remained obscure until, 300 years later, there was a resurgence of interest in the Maya. Explorers, hobbyists, and artists who happened to have the time, money, and fortitude to brave the jungles started unearthing Mayan ruins and making sketches and watercolors of them. In some cases, these sketches are the only record we have, since the jungle has continued its destructive work in the 200 years since.

Once European academics started getting interested in the Maya, they realized there was a very elaborate system of numbers and pictographs that they could not read.  Thus began a long, haphazard process of rediscovering old codices and cross-checking them with symbols found on the monuments, as recorded in photographs and drawings. The number system was easier to decipher – dots for ones and bars for fives, for example – and so the first thing that got decoded were dates and astronomical cycles,

… which led many experts to conclude that Maya writing was limited to such matters. As late as the 1950s this was still the most prevalent view, and its chief spokesmen were the American archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., and J. Eric S. Thompson, a British archaeologist also affiliated with Carnegie. Thompson drew a picture of the Maya as a peaceful, contemplative people, obsessed with the passage of time, and guided by priests who watched the movements of celestial bodies and discerned in them the will of the gods. Maya cities were ceremonial centers, he believed, not bastions of the worldly power.

The Magnificent Maya. p. 33

Over the next few decades, through the work of several brilliant code breakers, about 80 percent of Mayan glyphs were deciphered. Turns out they are a combination of ideograms (an image representing an idea) and phonetic units (an image representing a sound).  As this work went on, researchers have been able to read more and more of the Mayan myths and history, which in turn has helped us better to interpret their art. They started to discover that the 19-century “noble savage” characterization of the Maya was badly mistaken.

They Were Shockingly Cruel

First of all, the Mayan society was indeed hierarchical, with battles for succession and kings of city-states engaging in (perhaps ritual?) warfare. Discoveries during the 1990s confirmed that this hierarchy was present hundreds of years earlier than previously guessed.  (Archaeologists’ preconceptions might have had something to do with these inaccurate guesses. See my post about Serpent Mound for a critique of the 19th-century idea that civilizations always develop along certain lines, from hunter-gatherers, to villages, to cities.)

from The Magnificent Maya, p. 108

But warfare was only the beginning. There was also the bloodletting, the torture, and the human sacrifice.

Apparently, Mayan royalty were expected to offer blood to their gods. During these bloodletting rituals, they would have visions. There are pictures and statues of both men and women doing this. Women would draw a stingray spine through their tongue to produce the blood. Men would draw blood from their tongue, earlobes, or genitals. (Yikes.) They would allow the blood to be absorbed by sheets of bark paper, which was then burned, the smoke being a way of getting the blood to the gods.

If a culture is going to have a painful ritual, it’s good that it should be done by the royalty. That’s certainly better than having a royalty that is unwilling to suffer for their duty and their people. If this were the only painful ritual the Maya had, I’d kind of admire it. But it wasn’t.

The Maya were big on human sacrifice. Decapitation was popular, or they might throw the victims into a sacred cenote (large natural limestone hole filled with water) if one was available. High-born victims, captured in war, would be mutilated and displayed before the community before being offed. Later, perhaps under the influence of the feathered-serpent cult of the Toltecs, Mayan priests would cut out the victim’s heart, offer it (and its steam – ew!) to the sun, and then kick the body down the steps of the temple. This ritual was still being conducted at Uxmal in the 1500s, which is why we know about details like the kicking of the body (Magnificent Maya, 139 – 140).  Chacmools, which were obviously built to hold something, may have been made to hold human hearts.

The Magnificent Maya, p. 136. Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza. The reclining statue holding a bowl is the chacmool.

Then there were the ball games. Did I mention that the Maya were big sports fans? Like, really big. You have probably heard of this game, where the players would use their hips and buttocks to bounce a large, heavy rubber ball off the sloping walls of the court. Apparently, the Maya took their sports so seriously that the losers of this game might be sacrificed, either by one of the methods above, or by being trussed up and used as the ball until they died (94 – 95).  This very ball game features in the Mayan creation story, the Popol Vuh, where the Hero Twins play the game against the inhabitants of the Underworld. The reason they are obliged to do so? The rulers of the Underworld “covet [the brothers’] sporting gear and want to steal it” (56 – 57). This story, too, features a lot of torture.

Cruelty is always shocking, which is why the heading for this section says “shockingly cruel.” But it should not shock us to discover that a previously unknown civilization featured widespread, institutionalized atrocity. Every single human culture has something like this. Cultures can have good historical moments when the human evil is comparatively restrained, and they can have bad historical moments when it is encouraged. You could argue that in the case of the Maya, it had really gotten out of hand, and I think you’d be right. But I don’t think that makes the Maya different from any other people in their basic humanity. In their uniqueness, they epitomize what human beings are capable of. People are extremely creative, and they have often used their creativity to dream up ways to torture one another. This is why we have the expression, “Man, the glorious ruin.”

They Were Jaw-Droppingly Smart

from Fingerprints of the Gods, photo plate between pages 134 – 135. I have no idea how this light and shadow serpent effect was accomplished, but if true, it’s an amazing piece of engineering.

And now we get to the glorious part. No matter how depraved, broken, fallen, or ruined they may be, human beings never stop being made in the image of God, which means they will keep on being creative and clever and productive. It has long been a theme on this blog that ancient people were smarter than modern people expect. This is because they were people, and people are always surprising other people – because the other people are proud – with their cleverness.

The Maya were advanced mathematicians. They had the concept of zero, and the idea of place value, which the Romans did not have. They had calculated the solar year at 365.2420 days (the modern calculation is 365.2422), and the time of the moon’s orbit at 29.528395 days (modern figure is 29.530588). They had figured out the average synodical revolution of the planet Venus (the amount of time it takes for Venus’s orbit and the earth’s orbit to sync up so that Venus is rising in the exact same spot in the sky). This average happens to be 583.92 days, and they had figured out how to reconcile this with their “sacred year” (13 months of 20 days each) and with the solar year, by adding days every certain number of years, similar to our leap year.  Bringing all these interlocking calendars into sync then allowed them to calculate mind-blowingly distant dates without losing accuracy.

All the above information is from Graham Hancock in Fingerprints of the Gods. Hancock then quotes Thompson, the romanticizer whom we met a few sections ago. Studying the Mayan calendar, Thompson had reason to be impressed:

As Thompson summed up in his great study on the subject:

“On a stela at Quiriga in Guatemala a date over 90 million years ago is computed; on another a date over 300 million years before that is given. These are actual computations, stating correctly day and month positions, and are comparable to calculations in our calendar giving the month positions on which Easter would have fallen at equivalent distances in the past. The brain reels at such astronomical figures.”

Hancock, Fingerprints of the Gods, p. 162

Hancock, being a bit of a snob, questions why the Maya “needed” to develop these calendrical and mathematical tools. He speculates that the Maya had inherited “a coherent but very specific body of knowledge … from an older and wiser civilization.”

“What kind of level of technological and scientific development,” Hancock asks, “was required for a civilization to devise a calendar as good as this?” (158 – 159)

Of course, he is asking these questions because he’s heading in the direction of civilization having dispersed from a “mother-civilization.” That’s fine with me, but in asking these questions he also betrays a worship of science and technology that is distinctly modern and that, when applied to ancient peoples, makes us shortsighted. Why should mathematical genius exist only in the service of technology? The Maya were smart, and they wanted to make these calculations about the celestial bodies and about dates in the distant past and future. Isn’t that enough? Furthermore, they actually recorded why they were so obsessed with these calculations. Their cosmology held that time proceeded in predictable cycles of disasters, and they were pretty concerned with knowing when the next one was coming. That was the purpose of the Long Count calendar, as Hancock himself points out on page 161. It was a doomsday clock. That may also have been a big part of the reason for the horrifying sacrificial system.

The Long Count calendar is what everyone was talking about when they were saying the Maya had predicted a cataclysm for Dec. 23, 2012.  It didn’t happen – phew! – and, frankly, for obvious reasons I don’t completely buy in to their cosmology. Although we do need to consider the possibility that in converting the dates, we made a mistake in interpreting their extremely complex system.

Bottom Line, the Mayans are People

I can’t say that I find the Mayan – or the Toltec, Aztec, or Olmec – myths or aesthetic particularly attractive. I dipped my toe in because as part of the research for my books, I need to at least know my way around the ancient Mesoamerican mindset. As the research proceeds, I find myself becoming increasingly fascinated with these people. But I still wouldn’t want to have lived as one. This has been true of virtually every ancient culture I’ve studied.

So, taking it in reverse order, here is what we have learned about the Maya, and here is what we have learned about humans.

Humans are smart.

Humans are evil.

Humans are wonderful.

Humans are everywhere.


Hancock, Graham, Fingerprints of the Gods. 1995, Three Rivers Press, Random House, Inc., New York, New York.

Reader’s Digest books, editors, Mysteries of the Ancient Americas. 1986, The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, New York.

Time-Life books, editors, The Magnificent Maya. 1993, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia.

Quote of the Week: Brilliant Native American Botanists

Matthew Stirling, Chief of the American Bureau of Ethnology, [says] ‘Among the plants developed by these ancient botanists are maize, beans (kidney and lima), potatoes, and sweet potatoes, now four of the leading foods of the world. Manioc, extensively cultivated by the natives of tropical America is now the staff of life for millions of people living in the equatorial belt. Other important items, such as peanuts, squash, chocolate, peppers, tomatoes, pineapples and avocados might be added. In addition, the Indian was the discoverer of quinine, cocaine, tobacco and rubber …’

Kenneth Mackoman adds to this list, the custard apple, strawberry, vanilla bean, chickle, and cascara, besides a number of others less familiar. His whole list of important plants made up by Indian’s agriculture is impressive, for it contains 50 items, not one of which is an Old World species … The Indian devised a useful method for extracting a deadly poison (cyanide), from an otherwise useful plant, manioc, without losing the valuable starch it contained.

M.D.C. Crawford gave a list of vegetables which were cultivated by the American Indians prior to 1492, which adds the following: Aloe, Alligator Pear, Arrowroot, Star Apple, Cacao, Chili pepper, Jerusalem Artichoke, Cotton, Pineapple, Prickly pear, Pumpkin.

‘The pineapple … originated in America and was the unknown to the people of the Old World before its discovery.’ Just where the Indian found the original plants which they improved upon to produce modern pineapples, we do not know. None of the existing [wild] varieties compares with the domesticated plant … This was … a deliberate and intelligent breeding process … we cannot now retrace the steps by which it was first accomplished.

Arthur C. Custance, Noah’s Three Sons, Zondervan 1975, pp. 166 – 168

To Build A Fire

Another post in the series taken from this book

Building a fire is really stinkin’ hard. Even with matches. When I was 11, I attended an environmentally-focused school that taught (or attempted to teach) survival and camping skills. For one project, we had to build our own fire, using grass for tinder, and keep that fire going long enough to boil a 2-minute egg in a coffee can. (Remember coffee cans?) We were allowed matches, but even so, it was a challenge.

Fire-Building in Books

I think I could do it now, assuming there isn’t a ton of wind, or wet, or any other thing that makes fire-building really difficult. In Jack London’s classic short horror story To Build A Fire, the man is equipped with matches but not with brains, and he ends up freezing to death. The moral seems to be, Don’t go out in the Yukon when it’s 75 below.

Without matches, it’s a whole different ball game. The two main ways to do it are by striking sparks (the “percussion method”), or with a bow and drill. For both, you need a pile of tinder and good dry kindling handy. In the YA survival classic Hatchet, the 13-year-old hero Brian figures out by accident that he can strike sparks by throwing his hatchet against the wall of the cave in which he’s sheltering. Even then, it takes him a long time to get the sparks to catch in his “spark nest” of tinder. Once he does get a fire going, he realizes that his best bet is to keep it going at all times. That is how many people handle it. I’ve been told that some Native Americans used to carry a live coal in a small leather bag rather than try to start a fire from scratch, which is frankly genius. In my books, I have my characters do the same because I don’t have time for them to be unable to start a fire whenever they pick up and move camp. And also, they’re not stupid. That’s part of the point.

Bow and Drill

A drill, of course, is even harder. The drill may be rotated by the use of a thong, or a thong attached to a bow.

The thong-drill is rotated by a cord passed round it in a simple loop. The two hands of the operator pull on the thong in such a way that the [drill] stick repeatedly changes its direction of rotation … Obviously there is a necessity for the drill to be held upright in firm contact with the hearth [the bottom piece] by pressure from above, and a small socketed holder of wood, bone, or stone, or even the cut end of a coconut shell, is provided for this purpose. This socket-piece may be held down on the top of the drill by an assistant, or if its shape is suitable, as it usually is in the Eskimo appliance, it may be gripped in the mouth of the fire-maker.

H.S. Harrison, quoted in Rudgley, p. 161

The White Man has not introduced a single item of environmental protection in the Arctic which was not already used by the natives, and his substitute products are not yet as effective as native ones… Eskimos are described as very ‘gadget-minded’ and are able to use and repair machinery such as motors and sewing machines with almost no instruction.

Dr. O. Solandt and Erwin H. Ackerknecht, quoted in Custance, p. 159

If the thong is attached to a bow, it becomes possible to hold the drill on top with one hand and rotate it with the other hand by pulling the bow back and forth. If all goes well, the drill will produce on the hearth (bottom wood piece) “a little pile of wood-dust which smoulders and can be blown upon to make it glow, at which point it can ignite the tinder” (Rudgley p. 160).  Obviously not an easy process.

Fire in the Stone Age and Before

Both these methods – percussion, and wood friction – are attested in Stone Age times, as noted by Richard Rudgley. A site in Yorkshire has yielded flint and iron pyrites from Neolithic times. Various kinds of bows and drills, because made of wood, are less likely to be preserved for millennia than stone artifacts. However, the bow-and-drill’s wide distribution around the world indicates that it was a very old invention (or that people, wherever they go, are clever, and that the same thing was invented multiple times). An intact bow and drill was found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, though he is comparatively recent on the time scale we are discussing.  The Maglemosian culture, a culture from Mesolithic Scandinavia, has left stone and antler hand-rests from fire drills, as well as a fire-bow made from a rib. Also, many Stone Age objects have been found with drill-holes in them, so clearly Stone Age people were familiar with the drilling process. (Rudgley 161 – 162)

In Europe, objects reported to be lamps have survived from the Upper Paleolithic onwards. Examples get more numerous as we come forward in time. As with the Venuses of a previous post, we don’t see an evolution from “cruder” to “more sophisticated” lamps; rather, both kinds exist together, with the simpler ones being more common (146). By 25,000 years ago, there is evidence of different kinds of pyrotechnology, from hardening spear points in a fire, to oxidizing ocher, to heat treating flint to make it easier to work with, to metallurgy, to pottery.

For Palaeolithic man to have used such pyrotechnology [heat-treating flint] successfully he would have had to master a number of skills. Detailed knowledge of a range of materials, as well as a very accurate sense of timing and temperature control and maintenance, would have been essential. In these three fundamental aspects of Stone Age pyrotechnology one can see key elements that are found in the subsequent industrial activities of firing pottery and smelting metals.

Rudgley p. 149

In other words, as I’ve been saying, ancient people were a heck of a lot more capable than me, and probably than you as well.

There is evidence from Dordogne, France, that Neanderthals had fire about 60,000 years ago. “The Neanderthals seem to have deliberately chosen lichen as their fuel.” Rudgley adds, “At this site there is no evidence that any cooking took place … The indications are that the cave was used only as an occasional haven from the outside world, as signs of long-term use were lacking. Compared to the rock-lined hearths and excavated fire pits that were made by Upper Palaeolithic people, these fireplaces are rather basic” (p. 145). However, it seems a little hard on the Neanderthals to assume that they had no hearths and did not use for fire for cooking, just because there is evidence of neither at what Rudgley admits was probably a campsite.

Going even farther back, sites have been found with traces of human habitation and of fire that are believed to be 400,000 years old (Suffolk, England); 1.42 million years old (Chesowanja, Kenya); 1.8 million years old (Xihoudu, China); and 500,000 years old (Zhoukoudian or Choukoutien, China). For me personally, when the dates invoked are this ancient, the imagination fails and skepticism about the dating methods starts to set in. But regardless of the exact dates, I can accept that these are some of the oldest human sites that have been found, and that they seem to have used fire. Of course, sites from this far back (or even half this far back) are by their nature so fragmentary, and their interpretation requires so much conjecture, that if you don’t believe early “hominoids” had fire, it’s extremely easy to cast doubt on whether these ashes were caused by people.

The Binfordian hypothesis of minimal cultural capacities for Pleistocene hominids [proceeds by] imposing impossibly rigorous standards of evidence on archaeological assemblages and postulating elaborate natural alternatives (lightning-caused cave fires, spontaneous combustion, chemical staining).

Geoffry Pope, quoted in Rudgley, p. 144

But in Zhoukoudian (the supposedly 500,000-year-old, Homo erectus site), “the case is seen to be particularly strong, as burnt bones and stones, ash and charcoal have been found in each and every layer of the site” (Rudgley p. 144).  As someone who believes that people have always been people and never merely “hominids,” I have no problem with the idea that the use of fire goes back to the very beginning of mankind.

Pyrotechnology in Ancient America

It’s an old saw that whenever archaeologists don’t know what a find was used for, they attribute to it some religious function. This proved to be the case with a mound near Indian Creek, Illinois, at the base of which was a “deposit of 6,199 flints … covered with a stratum of clay, 10 inches in thickness, and on this a fire had been maintained for some time” (Rudgley 150 -151). Most of these flints are unfinished. There was speculation, at first, that they had been buried as grave goods or, for some reason, to hide them from enemies. But it is now believed that this is a large-scale example of heat-treating flint.  “It has now become clear that the use of heat treatment in aboriginal North America can be traced back to the Palaeo-Indians … This, in conjunction with the fact that the practice is known from the upper Palaeolithic period in France, and has been reported from Aboriginal Australia, South America and Japan, shows that it is of … considerable antiquity” (151) and that the story of the world is that of an outward spread of already sophisticated peoples.


Custance, Arthur C. The Doorway Papers I: Noah’s Three Sons. Zondervan, 1975.

(The Doorway Papers can be found online at:

My blog post that gives a very brief summary of Custance’s thesis: Two Views on the Sons of Noah )

Rudgley, Richard. The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age. Touchstone, 2000.