Primitive Instincts: Where modern man can learn to live like his ancestors

At the Mid-Atlantic Primitive Skills Gathering in Conowingo, Md., you learn to make rope from leaves, tan animal hides and other living-off-the-grid talents.
By Tom Bartlett
Sunday, September 26, 2010

For a long time, we hunted and gathered. Eventually, we learned how to plant and harvest, which allowed us to stay put. We invented stuff like the hammer, the knife and the wheel. Later, we came up with candles, rulers and buttons. We built a pyramid or two, tossed up a few castles. We figured out how to copy books and kill germs.

Now, we're walking around with tiny computers linked to space machines. Greeting cards sing to you. Both cheese and string can be sprayed from a can. Things have worked out nicely.

But here's the rub, fellow 21st-century humans: We have become soft. As the centuries whizzed by, we lost touch with what set us apart, the knowledge that enabled us, for better and sometimes worse, to rise above the other species and claim our enviable spot atop the food chain.

I'm certainly no exception. In fact, should future anthropologists seek an exemplar of the Age of Microwave Burritos, they need look no farther. I am timid and thin, pasty and weak, a cosseted creature who is helpless without WiFi and an ergonomic pillow. Drop me in the wilderness, and the only question is which predator will be disappointed by my bland, meager flesh.

Lately, I've been wondering about the gap between who we are and who we used to be. What have we forgotten that we once knew? Is modernity as good as advertised? What, if anything, can we learn from our slightly hairier forebears? This curiosity is the reason I found myself in the woods of northern Maryland, along with a couple hundred strangers, trying to make fire with sticks.


When you arrive at the annual Mid-Atlantic Primitive Skills Gathering, you are issued a wooden badge with the name of your group. For instance, you might be a White Tail Deer, Coyote or Brown Thrasher. I reach into the bucket to retrieve the emblem I will wear around my neck for all to see throughout the four-day event.

I am a Tufted Titmouse.

I check in and look over the lengthy lists of classes, some of which sound reasonable enough -- spoon carving, basket weaving, pottery -- while others are less familiar. Antler working? Flint knapping? Brain tanning?

More or less at random, I choose cordage.

I have zero need for rope in my daily life. I don't lasso, winch or lash. Our ponytailed, 30-ish instructor, Jan Macario, is outfitted in name-brand outdoor gear, including Vibram shoes (the kind with individual toe slots) and a Camelbak hydration pack. He appears to be a refugee from REI. Jan shows us how to strip the outer layer of yucca leaves by rubbing them with a small stone or coin to reveal the thin, flexible fibers underneath.

These fibers can be twisted into surprisingly sturdy cord. An even stronger rope can be fashioned from a dried plant called dogbane, once the stick-like stalks have been crushed and the flaky covering removed.

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