The HMNS School of Rock: Cracking Caveman Crafts in the Classroom

Today’s guest post was written by Dr. Gus Costa, Geoarchaeologist at Rice University and Paleoarts Educator/Owner of The Flintstone Factory

The ascent of humankind is an unlikely story of a clawless, small-toothed primate prevailing in a brutish world of horrific beasts. How did our ancestors compete with lions, tigers and bears? More importantly, how would you cope with similar hardships in the wild without modern amenities? Just think camping without any of your essentials. That’s right! No air conditioned RV or battery-powered margarita maker. Sounds pretty miserable, huh?

Humans are addicted to material culture. We need our “stuff.” We need it so badly that we would die without it. Even the most austere, anti-materialist Tibetan monk needs a coat and shoes when he goes outdoors. Thomas Carlyle (1884) said it best, “man is a tool-using animal…without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all.” Our dependence on stuff as a means of adaptation is what makes us special. Yet this “all or nothing” strategy also makes us particularly vulnerable, especially if many of us cannot make what we need to survive. Modern people are very accomplished tool users, but rarely are we tool makers. Even the contemporary hunter-survivalist culture is inherently consumerist. What happens to human self-reliance when all the fancy bells and whistles are taken away?

The Discovery Channel show “Naked and Afraid” provides an excellent case in point. This TV program follows two survival experts who are tasked with living in the wild, completely nude for 21 days! Participants are allowed to bring one helpful item each. As one would expect, somebody always brings some kind of cutting tool (survival knife, machete, axe etc.). This TV show clearly demonstrates that: 1) even survival experts probably wouldn’t last long in the wild without any gear and most importantly, 2) a cutting implement is the most essential item a human can possess in the wild.

For more than 99% of human existence, stone tools (knives, hammers, axes, spear-tips, arrowheads, etc.) have provided a critical advantage to an otherwise poorly equipped animal. Our distant ancestors may have been naked, but they weren’t afraid because they knew how to make stone knives and other essentials needed for survival.

Factory-made modern cutting implements versus hand crafted, all natural paleo-cutlery (Image Credit: Gus Costa, The Flintstone Factory

Factory-made modern cutting implements versus hand crafted, all natural paleo-cutlery (Image Credit: Gus Costa, The Flintstone Factory

Stone tools are part of everyone’s heritage. Regardless of who you are at some point in the past your ancestors made and used stone tools. It’s an international tradition, not just something that Native American used to do. The oldest artifacts known are 2.6 million year old stone tools from Africa. Yet several contemporary peoples still employ stone tools in traditional activities. In short, flaked stone technology is the most persistent human practice known and was the essential skill largely responsible for the survival of our species………. So why don’t we know more about it?

The Stone Age is the longest and most mysterious phase of the human story largely due to the durability of stone relative to other biodegradable materials. Items made of perishable materials (wood, bamboo, bone) were surely important, but these organic clues have decayed and vanished over the millennia. Much like diamonds, stone tools are forever. Stone tool “fashions” have also changed through time and from place to place, so they can be used by scientists as chronological markers in addition to shedding light on ancient human behavior.

Flaked stone tools are made by fracturing naturally occurring rocks with glass-like properties (brittle, hard and uniform silica-based stones like cherts, flints and obsidian). This process is called knapping, a word of Germanic origin meaning to break by a sharp blow (not to be confused with siesta style napping). Knapping was a cultural universal among all human populations until about 8,000 years ago, when metallurgy emerged and metal artifacts replaced stone tools.

Flint knapping in action (Image Credit: Gus Costa, The Flintstone Factory)

Flint knapping in action (Image Credit: Gus Costa, The Flintstone Factory)

Despite being a major caveman past time, knapping is more complex than most people realize. Locating the proper type of stone requires geological and geographical knowledge. Knapping also demands a basic understanding of physics. The trick behind knapping is the successful manipulation of a “hertzian cone”—a type of fracture commonly seen in car windshields. Hertzian cones are produced because force propagates equally in all directions in uniform materials. Just like a water drop in a pool – energy radiates in a symmetrical manner through glassy substances. Controlling the direction and magnitude of this phenomenon allows the knapper to “sculpt” stone into a finished tool, by using a variety of techniques and knapping tools.

Direct freehand knapping with a stone hammer is the most basic approach, although antler, bone or wood may also be used to remove stone flakes or chips. By the later stages of prehistory, knappers discovered that focused pressure with a pointed implement was an effective way to finish and sharpen tools. Arrowheads and other projectile points were often completed by pressure flaking with deer antler tines.

Tools of the trade. Traditional flint knapping tools Left hammerstones, Right Deer antler and wooden batons. Below Large composite pressure flaker. (Image Credit: Gus Costa, The Flintstone Factory)

Tools of the trade. Traditional flint knapping tools Left hammerstones, Right Deer antler and wooden batons. Below Large composite pressure flaker. (Image Credit: Gus Costa, The Flintstone Factory)

There are many other intricacies to the lost art of knapping. Replicating prehistoric stone tools is extremely powerful and enlightening activity that is much more difficult than one might expect. After more than a decade of knapping and a Ph.D. in Paleolithic archaeology, I have not yet progressed far beyond the Neanderthal stage of technical complexity!

A two million year old Early Stone Age knife is the most rudimentary technology known. It’s so easy that a caveman could do it. In fact, even captive chimpanzees have learned to make these basic tools! But could you? Are you smarter than your prehistoric ancestors?

If you enjoy history, science, technology, art, and breaking things – I invite you to put your highly evolved brain to the test by joining me on Wednesday December 4th for our first HMNS “School of Rock.” This HMNS Adult Education class (must be older than 16) will teach you the prehistoric skills needed to master the ancient art of stone tool making. Discover how antler, stone and bone can be used to fashion a paleo-survival knife through proper percussion and pressure methods. Learn how to make an arrowhead by pressure alone and a simple stone knife using traditional hand tools. Your lithic art is yours to keep for your collection. Participants should wear long pants and close-toed shoes. All materials, tools, and safety equipment will be provided by The Flintstone Factory.

Let’s see you test your wit and grit against that of your “primitive” ancestors!

“Reinventing Stone Age Tools”
Wednesday, December 4, 6 p.m.
Tickets $80, Members $65
Paleolithic archaeologist Gus Costa will teach the prehistoric skills needed to master the ancient art of stone tool making. Using traditional hand tools, craft a simple stone knife that is yours to keep for your collection.

For tickets, click here or call 713.639.4629.


Sweet lobotomies: A sugar skull how-to for fellow craft addicts

Fall is a favorite time of year for many people in the Education Department. The summer rush is over, the weather has gone from sweltering to just hot and Dia De Los Muertos is approaching. When it comes to Day of the Dead crafts, some might say we have an addiction. But we don’t! We can stop crafting whenever we want to … we just don’t want to.

To share in the spirit of this holiday for craft addicts, we’re going to show you how to make sugar skulls. They are fun and easy, but you should be prepared to get a little sticky, and the process does take a bit of time.

Completed sugar skull!Ingredients:
5 lbs of sugar
¼ cup of meringue powder
3+ tablespoons of water

A big bowl
A sugar skull mold (see notes below)
Scraps of cardboard sized to your mold
Your hands (because a spoon just doesn’t cut it!)

1.    Dump your 5 lbs. bag of sugar into your bowl.
2.    Add ¼ cup of meringue powder. We used a rounded ¼ cup, so precision isn’t super important here. Meringue powder is widely available at any store selling cake decorating supplies.

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to3.    Mix the sugar and powder with your hands.
4.    Add 3 tablespoons of water half a tablespoon at a time and mix with your hands. You are aiming for the sugar to stick to itself. To test this, sprinkle a handful into your open palm. Close that palm into a fist and then open your hand. If the sugar stays in the shape of your closed fist — however briefly — you’ve got a winner.  If it is too powdery or won’t stick, add more water. If it is too mushy, add a bit more sugar.
5.    Once you’ve got it to the right consistency, get your mold. We’ve cut ours apart for ease of use, but you can leave them as a whole sheet too.
6.    Put the mold in one of your hands face down.
7.    Pack the sugar mixture into the mold like you would brown sugar for baking.  It is okay if it is overly full as long as it is tightly packed.
8.    Using your cardboard scrap, scrape the excess sugar off and back into the bowl.  Your skull’s back, if viewed from the side, should be totally flat.
9.    Place the cardboard scrap on the back of your skull so it covers all the sugar.

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to10.    Press the mold and cardboard together.

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to11.    Flip!

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to12.    Place both pieces on the counter together.
13.    Lift the mold off.  Ta-da!

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to14.    Repeat this process, making sure to make enough backs and fronts. Making sugar skulls is a very forgiving process. If you aren’t 100 percent satisfied with your work, dump it back into the bowl and start over. If your skull is dried and has a defect, cover the defect with icing.  No worries!
15.    After 4 to 8 hours, depending on the humidity, your skulls should be stiff to the touch and you can gently pop them off the cardboard.
16.    Take a skull and place it in your hand face down.
17.    With a metal spoon, lobotomize your sugar skull. You will scoop out all the inside goodness and put it back in your bowl.  If your skull isn’t dry enough, it will crumble in your hand. This isn’t a problem – just wet your hand, mix up the bits and do it again. If your skull is too hard, you won’t get any scoopings. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, either, but no scoopings means heavier skulls and it is a bit wasteful.

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to18.    Re-wet the scoopings, if necessary, and use them to make a few more skulls!

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to19.    Stay tuned for a second post on how to make royal icing to cement and decorate your skulls.

If you are nervous about the process, don’t have the time or just don’t want your floors to be sticky, join us on Monday Oct. 22, for an evening workshop on Day of the Dead and Sugar Skulls.

Editors’ Notes:
If you live in Houston, then you’re in for a treat. Casa Ramirez in the Heights is your one-stop-shop for Day of the Dead items, including a variety of sugar skull molds. Senor Ramirez is old school, however, so there is no website and definitely no online ordering option. This is offset by the instant gratification of walking away with your molds and not having to pay shipping.

If you are not from Houston, you might want to check out, a pretty terrific online store that sells just about anything you can imagine when it comes to Dia de Los Muertos. Happy lobotomizing!

LEGO my Robotics! New course to be offered at HMNS Main and HMNS at Sugar Land beginning in September

HMNS is launching a new after-school LEGO Robotics program this fall at HMNS’ main campus and at HMNS Sugar Land.

The program is modeled after our popular Xplorations summer course and spans 10 weeks, beginning Sept. 11 at HMNS and Sept. 13 at HMNS Sugar Land.

LEGO RoboticsClass will be held once a week on Thursday afternoons from 4:30 to 6 p.m. at both locations. Students will explore the basics of NXT Robotics Engineering, building models with the LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT system and then using a computer to program the models and manipulate them to obey commands.

Students can compete with other teams to finish challenges and earn the top spot on the class leaderboard.

LEGO RoboticsPlease note that the course is limited to 16 students grades 4 through 7 at each location. Pricing is $240 for non-members, $190 for members.

To learn more about LEGO Robotics at HMNS (Sept. 11 through Nov. 13) and HMNS Sugar Land (Sept. 13 through Nov. 15) and register for class, click here.

Stage-five clingers: Learn to grow epiphytes with Zac Saturday, March 24

As the horticulturist for the Cockrell Butterfly Center conservatory, I get asked a plethora of gardening questions. The most frequently asked question (other than “How’s Lois?”) has got to be “How do you get your orchids to grow on trees?”

Orchid Show at HMNS!

I explain to visitors that most orchids are epiphytic, which means that they grow on the trunk and branches of larger trees. To do this, they have developed ingenious ways to obtain water and nutrients without the need of soil. Not to be confused with parasites, epiphytes take nothing from the tree they attach themselves to. Notable examples include ferns, orchids and bromeliads, but the most familiar epiphyte to people here in the south is a wispy bromeliad by the name of Spanish moss.

There seems to be a common misconception that growing orchids is reserved for only the most experienced gardeners, but from my experience, this is not always the case. In fact, orchids seem to thrive on neglect; the most common cause of orchid death is over-watering.

epiphyte orchid

To learn more tips and tricks for epiphyte growing, join me for the HMNS adult education class How to Grow Orchids, Bromeliads and Other “Air Plants”  from 9 to 11 a.m. this Saturday the 24th in the Cockrell Butterfly Center. The class includes a behind-the-scenes tour of the Butterfly Center, followed by a hands-on class where attendees will learn how to propagate, divide, mount and fertilize their own epiphytes. And finally, everyone goes home with their very own orchid to start (or add to) their collection!