Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Indian Relics
Nature Bulletin No. 210-A   December 11, 1965
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

The American Indians, before the coming of the white man, were Stone Age people. Theirs was a hand culture, employing tools of stone, bone, shell and wood. Certain tribes used copper found near Lake Superior and elsewhere, but no Indian had learned to use metals like bronze and iron. Others had learned to weave and made baskets or clothing out of plant materials. Most tribes made pottery: molding and baking vessels of clay tempered with sand, powdered rock or shell; some crude; some very good. They had learned to farm and had domesticated many useful plants such as corn, beans, squash and tobacco, but they had not discovered the wheel, nor the plow, and the dog was their only domestic animal. Some tribes, like the Sioux of the great plains, were wandering hunters depending upon the buffalo for food and clothing.

In the making of weapons, tools and ornaments, the Indians were remarkably ingenious, skillful and patient. They discovered that brittle stone like flint or chert, which had no "grain" or planes along which it would split, could be cracked with a cobblestone hammer into flat pieces or slivers. Then these could be flaked off into desired shapes, with sharp edges or saw teeth if needed. They discovered that such stone worked better when freshly dug, so they buried what was not immediately used, to keep it "green". From creek beds and lake shores, from rock ledges and caves, or from limestone beds which they quarried -- using cobblestones as hammers and the antlers of deer or elk as picks -- the Indians obtained chunks of flint. These were fashioned into arrowheads, spearheads, knives, scrapers, chisels and drills, using tools of stone, bone, wood and leather.

Tomahawks, axes, mauls, celts (chisels), gouges for shaping wood, and mortars with pestles for grinding corn, acorns and seeds, were usually made from cobblestones of granite or similar material having the proper density and toughness. These were roughly shaped by knocking off spalls with a stone hammer. The final shape was obtained by pecking over the entire surface with smaller tools. Finally, the tool marks were ground away with a gritty rock like sandstone, and the surface polished with a softer fine-grained stone.

Pebbles were grooved for weights on fishing nets; or chipped, ground, polished and drilled to serve as ornaments. Smoking pipes were sculptured from stone, or molded out of clay and baked. Antlers and other bones were used for picks, mallets, scrapers, drills, awls, needles and fishhooks. Shells were used for hoes to scrape wood or hides, to scale fish, and to make beads for ornament. Porcupine quills were used lavishly to ornament ceremonial garments, pipe stems, arm bands and pouches.

Bows, arrow shafts, war clubs and throwing sticks were made of wood; as were their drums. Many implements, and boats or "dugouts", were made of wood. The graceful canoe had a light framework of wood covered with skins or birch bark. Root and bark fibers were used for baskets, weaving and fish nets. Deer sinews were used for thread and lashings. Almost every plant had some use, such as for food, medicine, dye, clothing, shelter, utensil or implement.

The articles they made of wood, bark, leather, and other plant and animal materials, have decayed and disappeared. Only their tools of stone and fragments of pottery -- called "artifacts" -- remain. Nothing brings home the reality of these original Americans more vividly than to find a specimen or a fragment of their handiwork.

'Twas a simpler life, and perhaps a happier one.

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