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«YUROK FISH KNIVES: A STUDY OF WEAR PATTERNS AND ADHERING SALMON SCALES Thomas R. Hester and W.I. Follett In the collections of the Lowie Museum of ...»

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King salmon is the official name of Oncorhynchus tshawytscha in California, but chinook is official elsewhere in the United States and in Canada. The attributives quinnat, blackmouth, spring, and tyee have all had wide usage. For a concise discussion giving much information about the king salmon, see Fry (1973: 74); an excellent colored plate of this species was published by Hudson (1917). The salmon of the Klamath River were discussed in considerable detail by Snyder (1931) and the extensive utilization of salmon by aboriginal peoples, including those of northwestern California, was discussed by Rostlund (1952: 15-23, 256, Map 8) and by Swezey and Heizer (in press).

Archaeological sites in this region yielding remains of king salmon have been noted by Follett (1975).

Scales imbedded on other specimens in our sample were not detached for detailed analysis. However, the junior author's perusal of those scales indicated that all of them appear to be salmonid. He noted the absence of scales on 1-1326, 24 scales on 1-1439, 21 scales on 1-1540, and two on 1-1541.


The junior author, working with James E. Gordon (California Academy of Sciences), secured radiographs (the necessary exposures varied from one to four minutes) of all of the hafted specimens (Figs. 3, 4). These reveal that all but one of the specimens are bipointed. In general, the lower one-third of each biface was inserted into the haft. Although the radiographs are not sufficiently distinct to allow exact measurement of the depth of insertion into the haft in each example, we can offer these following approximate figures: 1-1540 (Fig. 3, a): 40 mm; 1-1539 (Fig. 3, b): 35 mm; 1-1541 (Fig. 3, c): 21 mm; 1-1326 (Fig. 3, d): 18 mm; 1-1538 (Fig. 4, b): 34 mm.

The one hafted specimen that is not bipointed (Fig. 3, d; 1-1326), appears from the radiograph to have a broken proximal end. Perhaps the specimen was originally bipointed, but was broken at an earlier period of utilization and was subsequently rehafted. Certainly, the radiographs of the other specimens indicate that a bipointed outline was the desired form of biface to be hafted as a fish knife.


Just as certain kinds of archaeological interpretation rest heavily on ethnographic analogy, it seems reasonable that a homologous situation could exist between observable microwear on ethnographic stone tools and their prehistoric counterparts in particular regions. In order to test this specific proposition, several unhafted bifaces from the Yurok area (Fig. 6) were examined to see if the characteristic wear patterns on the hafted stone knives could be duplicated. However, since only a limited number of unhafted specimens were available in the Lowie Museum collections, the comparisons between the hafted and unhafted bifaces are not fully satisfactory. Dimensions of the study specimens are found in Table 2.

SPECIMEN 1-152067 (Fig. 6, b)

This specimen is not from the Yurok area, but was excavated at site Teh-58 (Tehama County, California). However, it was selected for analysis because of its great technological resemblance to the hafted Yurok specimens; it is, in all likelihood, a trade piece from the Yurok area. It is bipointed and has convex edges. The interior has broad flake scars, but exhibits near parallel trimming flakes along the edges. The biconvex (rounded) lateral edges noted on specimen 1-1539 are also present on this piece.

The chert is variegated in color, but is predominately reddish-yellow (Munsell 7. 5 YR 6/6), with gray areas. The lower part of the specimen seems stained, perhaps from hafting (Fig. 6, b). The chert is glossy, perhaps the result of heattreating.

The microwear observed on the edges of this biface consists of crushing and blunting, identical to that recorded for the Yurok fish knives.

SPECIMEN 1-1546 (Fig. 6, a) This unhafted biface was collected by Kroeber in the Yurok area in 1901. It is bipointed, with convex sides, and is constricted at one end. The faces are marked by broad, shallow flake scars and the specimen is quite thin. The color of the specimen is approximately "pale brown" (Munsell 10YR 6/3), but it, too, has a glossy texture.

The constricted end mentioned above retains scattered bits of residue (mastic) and it seems quite probable that this was the end inserted into a haft.

Under microscopic examination, the lateral edges reveal scattered light dulling, and more significantly, the blunted and crushed protrusions are identical to those on the hafted Yurok fish knives.

SPECIMEN 1- 974 (Fig. 6, c) During collecting activities in the Hupa Valley of California in 1901, Phillip Mills Jones obtained a large, convex-edged, bipointed biface. According to the artifact catalog of the Lowie Museum, Jones identified the specimen as a "woman's salmon knife."

The biface has broad flake scars on the interior of both faces, with short finishing or trimming flakes along the edges. It is reddish-brown in color (Munsell 5YR 3/3), but has gray mottling and a glossy sheen. Fish scales and unidentified residue adhere to various areas of the specimen (Fig. 6, c). There is no recognizable evidence of hafting, and it is possible that the specimen was hand-held.

Microwear in the form of crushing and blunting of protrusions along the lateral edges is present, and is identical to the edge wear noted for the hafted Yurok fish knives.

SPECIMEN 1-1545 (Fig. 6, d) This is an elongate biface with a rounded base and a broken distal tip. It was collected in the Yurok area by Kroeber in 1901. It is white in color (Munsell 10YR 8/1), and there is a polish or gloss adjacent to and along the lateral edges on both faces.

The specimen is unifacially beveled on both edges at the distal end (the distal one-third of the specimen).

Wear observed on the edges of this specimen includes occasional crushing and blunting of protrusions; however, the dominant wear pattern is a broad band of dulling scattered over both lateral edges (except for the retouched distal portion, probably a resharpened area). The morphology of this specimen is different from that of the Yurok fish knives, and it may be significant that different use-wear is also apparent.


In this paper we have described the results of our microwear and residue analyses of a series of Yurok hafted knives. Because the function of these artifacts was fully documented by early 20th century ethnographers, it is possible to link their use to salmon processing; this conclusion is confirmed by our identification of scales of king (chinook) salmon adhering to one of the knives. As noted earlier in the paper, Goddard (1903: 22) also linked similiar knives to "deer-skinning"; any surviving evidence of this function, such as deer hair imbedded in the pitch, was not observed.

The several morphological, technological and use-wear attributes that co-occur on these

salmon knives can be summarized and a few generalizations put forth:

(1) Edge angles for this series of salmon knives vary from 30 -55 on the right cutting edge and 300-380 on the left edge. The steeper edge angle on the right results from resharpening, suggesting that this edge was the one most consistently used during processing tasks.

(2) The types of wear that result from salmon processing include blunting and crushing of the cutting edges; some dulling was also noted. The most distinctive wear form is crushing (Fig. 5, b). We are not aware of detailed ethnographic descriptions of the actual manner in which a salmon knife was employed during processing, and experimental data are not available. Thus, we do not know what events during the processing cycle would lead to the formation of the observed wear patterns.

(3) Morphologically, the bifaces vary considerably in size. However, radiographs reveal them to be distinctively bipointed. A greenish-gray chert was apparently preferred for their manufacture, and there is some evidence (observed and ethnographic) that thermal alteration was used in preparing the chert for flaking. The bifaces were shaped by percussion techniques, but pressure flaking was used to finish and straighten the edges. Either technique could have been used in resharpening dulled edges.

Utilizing these data for comparative purposes, we examined the results of similar studies of the limited sample of unhafted bifaces. All of the bifaces were bipointed, except for one specimen (Fig. 6, d) which had a broken proximal end. The right edge angles of these bifaces varied from 30 - 500, and the left angles, 28°-470;

thus, the edge angle values for the hafted specimens and the unhafted examples correlates nicely for the right edges, but less so for the left. Most significant, we believe, is the presence of blunting or crushing wear (and dulling wear in one case) on the series of unhafted bifaces. The crushing observed on three of the unhafted specimens is visually identical to that of the hafted salmon knives. This would lead us to suggest that the unhafted specimens with this type of wear could also be directly linked to salmon processing; this suggestion is reinforced by the discovery of small fish scales adhering to one of the unhafted bifaces bearing the distinctive wear pattern (Fig. 6, c).

We are aware of the rather limited applications of these data given the small size of our samples. However, if one limits the application of the data to the Yurok area, we suspect this would be valid methodology to use to ascertain if bipointed unhafted bifaces in archaeological sites in that region served salmon processing functions.

We think that the paper demonstrates the potential of ethnographically-collected specimens of known function in wear pattern studies. The applicability is obvious, but the literature suggests that this is an avenue of research that has not yet been adequately exploited.

–  –  –

We would like to thank the following persons for their aid during the preparation of this paper: Professor R. F. Heizer (University of California, Berkeley) for his comments and suggestions; Richard W. Casteel (Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B. C.) for advice on computing weight of salmon from number of circuli on a scale;

Charles E. Chesterman (California Division of Mines and Geology) for identifying the stone of which knife blade 1-1538 is made; Lawrence E. Dawson (Lowie Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley) for identifying the cordage on the haft of one of the specimens;

Lillian J. Dempster (California Academy of Sciences) for manuscript preparation; Norman K. Freeman (Donner Laboratory, Berkeley) for infrared microscopy; Donald H. Fry, Jr., and Leo Shapovalov (formerly of California Department of Fish and Game) and Kenneth H. Mosher (formerly of U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service) for advice and assistance in identifying the scales; Maurice C. Giles (California Academy of Sciences) for the photographs in Figs. 3 and 4; James E. Gordon (California Academy of Sciences) for radiographs of the hafted knives; Nelly C. Rem (Forest Products Laboratory, Richmond) for identifying the wood of which the hafts were made; Dave D. Herod and A. B. Elsasser (Lowie Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley) for arranging the loan of the specimens from museum collections.

–  –  –

280-470 350-500 38.7 1-1545 8 Table 2. Dimensions, Weights and Edge Angles of Unhafted Bifaces. Measurements are in millimeters, and weights in grams. For specimen 1-1545, the first edge angle value in both instances represents angle near base, and the second, the angle at beveled distal end.

–  –  –

Swezey, S.L. and R.F. Heizer In press Ritual Regulation of Anadromous Fish Resources in Native California. In: Bela Gunda, Fishery Cultures of the World.

–  –  –

9~~ Figure 1. Distribution of Fish Knives on the Northwest California Coast. Stippled area indicates the known ethnographic distribution of hafted fish knives.

The darkened area represents Yurok territory.

Redrawn and adapted from Kroeber and Barrett (1960: Map 58).


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