Monday, May 12, 2014
I don't remember where I head this tale, or even if it's supposed to be true.
An old Australian aboriginal man is met by white foreigners on the beach. He'd never seen white people before. The visitors give the old man a steel knife. He was impressed by its sharpness, how it held an edge, and how strong it was. In spite of its obvious superiority to his stone knife, he refused the gift. The aboriginal man knew how to make a stone knife. He did not know how to make a steel one. The aborigine not want something he knew nothing about.
It was very unlikely the white visitors could build a steel knife either. They were the beneficiaries of a long line of interconnected processes overseen by an army of skilled people. That's modern life. Some hard core primitive skills people could perhaps duplicate the old aboriginal tool kit, but they are a tiny fraction of the population.
Many years ago, while staying at dad's hunting camp, a friend and myself tried to build a crossbow. Our tools were an ax and a knife. We had modern cordage, saving us from having to make our own. We wouldn't be at camp long enough to gather fibers and twist our own rope. After several days work we had a sort of functional crossbow. While it would throw a bolt, it was too underpowered and inaccurate to be more than a toy.
Years later, my friend went on to build fully functional replicas of medieval crossbows. While intended for reenactments, they are accurate and deadly. All it took was years of research, practice, and a well stocked modern workshop with power tools. If he had to, I bet he could put together a good crossbow with medieval tools. Still, even a medieval toolkit is a long ways from the tools needed to build a stone knife.
Should we reject anything more complicated than a stone knife? That's not really practical, nor is it possible to try and reproduce complex technologies from scratch. We can pick and choose technologies that are more easily maintained that others. We might not know how to build a knife from raw iron ore, but we can keep it sharp and rust free.