Catching up with the Primitive Technology channel

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2020/01/23/catching-up-with-the-primitive.html

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When you watch, turn on Subtitles / Captions image

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Who doesn’t like Plant based technology?

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I think this guy is the best. When I watch his videos, I can’t help seeing that the world is suffused with potential, the human mind crafted to create. Then I turn off YouTube and go back to feeling like a big dumb nitwit who can’t function without an iPhone.

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When he got to making iron prills, I was hoping he would enter the iron age. Nope, he is content with neolithic technology.

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What no kick starter motorcycles…

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I also like Primitive Life where he does a lot with homemade concrete and water filtering. He has made an iron knife, but not much more. A little more survive and thrive, but lacks the subtitle magic.

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My 12 year old son would really identify with this guy. He’s starting to get into blacksmithing, so I built him a simple forge. He’s doing ok with it but is having challenges maintaining sufficiently high temperatures at times because he insists on using a set of wimpy manual bellows to supply air to it instead of my electric blower. Being a stubborn pre-teen, he says a blower is “cheating,” even though I pointed out that blacksmiths have been using mechanical blowers for 200 years now. According to him anything that didn’t exist at least 1000 years ago is too modern. He even lights the dang thing using flint instead of matches…

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Very cool. Whenever I watch these I am amazed by just how much work these projects are. These would be nigh impossible without a village backing him up, providing food while he spends a week building the infrastructure to create these. Just think about how slow these projects would go if he also had to spend 12 hours a day hunting and gathering food to feed himself. (which incidentally become more difficult as you get kill off the local game and eat the local plants) Bootstrapping from nothng in the wildernes is nigh impossible, unlike in books like My Side of the Mountain.

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I love this channel and the hands-on skills that John demonstrates.
The channel started a fire around four years ago (ca. 400,000 years) and made clay fire bricks (9000 BC) over the last months. At this rate, I expect we’ll see a trip to space some time in 2020.

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I dunno, he’s got to spend several centuries coming up with the pack saddle. :wink:

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Thought experiment: if one makes a bowl from Ash ash, would it be twice as durable?

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Now that’s a kickass 12 yo

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This channel and others where people fix up old tools and devices have me utterly hooked. There is ASMR like aspect of them in a way - minus the tingling. They are hugely satisfying.

I have been pushing hard lately at my Fortune 50 company that we should be using these as models for training videos for a large industrial device family: no fluff, no intro music, no talking, no marketing crap. Just slow and instructive doing. And captions with details if you choose to see that.

This fits in a way with this idea I have for Kickstarter videos: if you can watch the video with no sound, understand what it is about, and still be excited about it, then it’s a good one to back.

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And therein is the crux of our entire way of life. Civilization arose once we developed methods of food production that were efficient enough that some people in the group didn’t have to spend all their time acquiring food. That opened the door to ever increasing task specialization, which in turn leads to even more efficiencies. That’s still the path we’re on to day.

I used to love PT, but actually stopped for the reasons another commenter mentioned. I always assumed he was in a forward trajectory, but it appears he isn’t. He just goes in circles around the minutiae of different kiln and hut designs.

This makes sense, honestly, because you can’t “just do” copper, bronze, and Iron Age stuff by yourself on an arbitrary piece of land. You need mines with good ore, and a whole lot more people to extract it, smelt it, refine it, forge it, sharpen it, etc. To forge metals, you need coal, coke, and people to extract and refine those. You need mechanical bellows which requires lumber and leather, which in turn require logging, lumber mills, carpentry, animal husbandry, tanning, and nails. The nails require blacksmithing, which is a whole other can of worms. The efficiencies and specialization I talked about above are not just a nice side effect. They are necessary. The labor demands increase exponentially with technology and you quickly reach a point where you can’t create the whole supply chain by yourself in a single lifetime.

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Well there is plenty of other stone age technology that he could do more of. Leatherwork, fabric, primitive agriculture, etc. But hey, aren’t we all a little fascinated with fire and what it can do?

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Totally! I definitely wish he’d do a lot more food stuff. Once he made a rodent-resistant pen and planted some yams, but not much ever came of it. Food-related activity was 99.99% of what people of the time period were focused on, though, so his fixation on structures, kilns, etc, is definitely an affectation.

I don’t think I would count fabric and leatherwork as “stone age” though (disclaimer: I am not a historian). Both of those have substantial infrastructure behind them. Skinning, drying, tanning, sewing and/or riveting hides is a whole process requiring chemicals and resources he may not happen to have access to on his property. He bought that land specifically for this show, and if he doesn’t happen to have arsenic or mercury on it, well, tough beans for whole sections of technology. Similarly, textiles gets you into shearing, spinning, thread making, weaving, looms, etc- all topics he doesn’t seem equipped to tackle (and may not be doable by one person?). I’m picking nits though- he could be making clothes from furs, drying berries, and doing lots of other interesting neolithic human activity.

At the risk of playing the sexism card everywhere, he’s very fixated on a narrow portion of what some of the men would have been doing. Meanwhile, the other 99 people in his village would have been drying berries and raising children for additional labor to support his annoying brick-making hobby. :smile: :smile:

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Well, at some level, people are interested in what they are interested in. His primary interest seems to be firing clay.
Certainly in colder climes, people were wearing hides, so leather work is definitely a stone age thing. North American natives mostly wore hides before contact with Europeans. You don’t need chromium or arsenic to tan leather, indeed you can buy"vegetable tanned" leather. He certainly uses some fibers in his lashings, but there are relatively few plant species suited to making fabric. And the process for linen or cotton are pretty labor intensive. Even in the middle ages, spinning wool into thread was something that women tended to fill any time that they weren’t doing other other chores.

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A few studies have shown that hunter-gatherer societies only spend around 20 hours per person per week in acquiring food, and a few more hours in preparation, cooking, etc. Farming societies actually spend more, around 30 hours per week, but that still leaves a lot of time for other activities.


Neolithic groups certainly had houses, pottery, and frivolous stuff like jewellery, paint, and so on. The non-growing season would provide all kinds of free time to putter around building stuff and thinking up new things. There’s also the contribution of elders who might be too old for hunting or field work, but who could still make bricks or tools.

Woven textiles go back to the Paleolithic, maybe 20,000 - 25,000 years ago. Felt may be older than that.


Once, as you say, the infrastructure was in place, by the time of the Aztecs and Incas (still stone age), weaving was highly sophisticated.

“Remarkably, the finest Inca cloth had a thread count of more than 600 threads per inch, higher than that found in contemporaneous European textiles and not excelled anywhere in the world until the industrial revolution in the 19th century.”

So if this guy chose, he could certainly produce string, rope, and fishnets (maybe he has, I haven’t seen many of his videos). From there he could progress to simple finger weaving and simple looms.

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For sure. There’s a reason so many of the stone tools found by archaeologists are scrapers, used to remove flesh and hair from the skin, and awls to poke holes for sewing.

In addition to plant tannins, substances that can be used to tan leather include urine, dung, and animal brains, which may be why the PT guy has stayed away from tanning.

Fun fact: in Victorian England, those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder could make a few farthings collecting dog feces (known as “pure”) to sell to the tanners.

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