The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 150: Ancient Firemaking

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

How would you start a fire without a lighter or matches? What if you only had what you could find around you in nature? This week on The WildeBeat; Ancient Firemaking

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number one fifty.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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NORM KIDDER: The homo erectus, you know, wandered off into Europe and Asia, apparently able to make fire, and so we're talking ...maybe as much as a million years ago.

STEVE: Norm Kidder, the Vice President of the Society of Primitive Technology reminds us, firemaking is a skill that our ancestors had long before they looked and behaved like modern humans. This is the next in a series of stories presenting teachers of prehistoric skills from the nonprofit educational organization Primitive Ways. Previously in this series, we heard from writer and instructor Dino Labiste about the basics of building a fire. This time, we move on to the advanced skill of building a fire without modern tools.

DINO LABISTE: Well, the three techniques I'm going to talk about is fire by friction, fire by compression, and fire by percussion. And all over the world these different techniques were utilized for making fire.

STEVE: Dino and I are in a nearby regional park. He's set-up around a stone fire ring in a picnic area.

DINO LABISTE: Let's look at fire by friction. Here in the Americas a lot of the native Americans from the past were doing fire by friction, which is the hand drill method.

DINO LABISTE: And the ideal situation with the hand drill is that you only need two pieces of wood. Modern contemporary methods of the fire by friction, which includes the bow drill, has so many different components to it, but the hand drill is only the hearth board and the spindle. Hearth boards were usually made from a type of soft wood, uh like maybe cedar, redwood, willow, the root structures of willow. The spindle, came from another softwood, like elderberry, some buckeye, certain weeds like mare's tail were also used.

DINO LABISTE: I've got here in my hand, mare's tail, and for the spindle. For the hearth board, I've got the flower stalk of a type of yucca, and I'm going to be taking the spindle and boring a pilot hole in the hearth board. And as I create a pilot hole, it becomes sort of like my guide hole to actually start spinning the spindle against the hearth board. I also created a V-shaped notch that goes into that little hole that's on the hearth board, and as I'm spinning the spindle against the hearth board, I'm grinding the two softwoods together, and eventually it creates a little bit of dust that forms in that notch, and as I apply downward pressure, I create friction to ignite that dust. Then I take that glowing ember, and I put it into my tinder and I blow it into a fire.

DINO LABISTE: The tinder material that I'm using for this fire by friction method consists of some combustible pine needles and in the center is some cattail down, or cattail seeds. And the reason for the cattail down is it helps to extend the coal when I get that going, and then the coarser material is what will create the fire. So you need some coarse material like bark, maybe some shredded pine needles, or something that will actually create a fire. And inside of that you need some really fine material that will actually extend the heat of the ember. And just by blowing into it, by providing oxygen you can turn that tinder nest into a fire.

DINO LABISTE: So what I'm going to do now is actually create the the ember, and just by taking my spindle and putting it in that hole I created by twirling that hole to create a pilot hole, ...I'm also going to put some water on my hand to actually provide a little more traction.

DINO LABISTE: So I'm going to start spinning this thing between my palms, and as I'm doing that you can hear the two woods grinding together -- the spindle and the hearth board. And I'm just going to slowly spin this thing to warm it up and then I'm eventually I'm going to start pressing harder to create a little bit more downward pressure, and spin it faster to create rotation, so doing this is pretty much of a aerobic exercise here, as I'm going up and down and spinning it a little bit faster, and I'm grinding the two woods together to create that dust, and then pushing down harder will eventually create a little more friction. Gosh light that dust, and then you might see some smoke or, there's some smoke actually wafting out of that hearth board right now.

DINO LABISTE: So I'm going to start pressing harder. As I'm doing this, I'm probably not going to be saying anything because it does require a little bit more concentration, and also, a little bit more effort on my part.

DINO LABISTE: OK. I'm going to fan it a little bit. provide a little bit more oxygen. and right now it's igniting that fine dust that I created in the hearth board. I'm going to take the spindle out, and here's my heat source, that I'll need to actually light my tinder.

DINO LABISTE: Now, I place a leaf underneath my hearth board there so that so that I can easily transport the lighted ember into my tinder nest. And as you can hear, I'm kind of breathing heavily because it's a lot of energy I exerted applying that downward pressure. Now I need to feed it some oxygen.

DINO LABISTE: That cattail down that I've got here will extend the coal, extend the heat.

DINO LABISTE: Right now the cattail down is glowing, providing some heat, and when it gets hot enough it will ignite that pine needle. And we've got fire. I'm going to put it down now because it's time to burn intensely, but it, when you get that fire, start putting your kindling over it, and then let that kindling burn, and then, uh, start putting some, uh, logs over it to create your, uh, campfire.

STEVE: So the next method was fire percussion, and where was that used?

DINO LABISTE: Fire by percussion was usually utilized in parts of Europe. Stone on stone. The two type of stones that were used was either a flint, and the other stone was a stone called ...marcasite. And marcasite is a type of pyrite that has some iron in it... You hit ...the flint material against the marcasite, creating these fine slivers of marcasite coming off. And the impact creates enough heat to ignite that marcasite... And you would take probably take some kind of combustible material and place it on the ground and allow those sparks to actually fall on that combustible material and creating a glowing ember. Some of the types of fuel that you can use is a fungus that will catch that spark and then allow it to glow.

STEVE: And the last technique was fire by compression.

DINO LABISTE: This method was actually cultures that are in Southeast Asia, and what it consists of is just this cylindrical piece that goes into another cylindrical piece that has a hole in it. So it's like a plunger... And just by pushing that plunger into the other section, you compress the air in there and create a lot of heat just by putting some tinder material in that plunger in the tip you can actually ignite that tinder material by plunging that thing into the other section of the fire piston. This method was utilized in the Philippines, utilized in Sumatra, Indonesia, the Malay peninsula, and it was a really unique and very sophisticated device. The material that was used was horn, some kind of hardwood, or bamboo, and some of the archaeologists think it was used in cultures that were utilizing blowguns. Just by reaming out some bamboo, they probably was able to create some fine slivers in some of the bamboo nodes or chambers and just by compressing some of that air in there it probably ignited the slivers. Somehow the people understood the concept and created these devices called the fire piston.

STEVE: So of all these techniques, which one would you suggest would be easiest and most effective one to use.

DINO LABISTE: Well the most effective one I think if you were trying to find materials for making fire is probably the fire by friction method. Fire by percussion you need the stone material, and marcasite and flint is not found everywhere. The other material, the other method, fire by compression, takes a bit of preparation to actually make that fire piston to create that hole and that tight tolerance does require some time. Fire by friction, the hand drill method, you can find just a spindle and a hearth board in a wilderness situation, but it's not something that will be found readily. I mean you have to look for the material, you have to know what types of wood to use for fires by friction. You can't use just any type of wood and every type of environment had woods that were utilized for creating the hand drill method.

STEVE: We'd like to hear about your experiences with primitive firemaking, your questions for the Primitive Ways instructors, and we always want to hear any other comments you have about our show. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You can find pictures of Dino in action, links to more information about firemaking skills, and download a high-quality stereo version of this show, on our web site.

STEVE: WildeBeat members can download a recording of Dino's complete demonstration of all three ancient firemaking skills from our WildeBeat Insider web pages.

STEVE: As a free, listener-supported service, we depend on you to help support our work. You can help by making a tax-deductible membership donation to our project. Membership levels start at sixteen dollars a year, and full membership is forty eight. For a limited time, become a WildeBeat member and get a weekend's worth of meals from Alpine Aire foods, books from Wilderness Press, access to bonus audio content, and more, as thank you gifts.

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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. If we helped you get into the wilderness, could you help us do the same for others? Please click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham and Kate Taylor, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Institute.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number one fifty. Thank you for listening.

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Next time -- Summer shopping.

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