by Jim Maus, Advance, North Carolina
Originally Published in the Central States Archaeological Journal, Vol.55, No.2, pg.62
Nuts! Nuts! Nuts! We like them because they are crunchy and they taste good and they are good sources of protein. But what if now was five thousand years ago? Would we be eating these little snacks? By all educated guesses, the ancient inhabitants of the Americas did so but not necessarily because they were good between meal snacks. It was instead because they were readily available in the forests, and since there were no grocery stores from which to procure food, any naturally occurring food source that was easily obtainable was eaten.
Certainly as early as the Archaic Period and maybe before that, ancient Americans ate what was there for the taking including animals and fish and seeds and nuts. But when they had no nut crackers with which to remove the nut meat from the shells, how did they accomplish this task? Well, with Nutting stones, of course.
We have all found or seen these amorphous hard and soft stone artifacts. They are essentially naturally shaped rocks, usually somewhat flat, that have small to large indentations in the rock surface. Careful analysis of these nutting stone depressions clearly shows that the concavities are not natural but were man made by repeated hammering and/or rotary grinding. They are made of many materials from very hard granite, basalt and gneiss to softer schist, limestone and sandstone and they have been found throughout the two Americas. But were they used for cracking nuts? There have been many theories as to the exact usage of these stones, some of which are:
1. Sockets to hold the butt end of a spear or lance shaft during the bark peeling and smoothing and straightening operations.
2. Anvils for fire making using a bow drill. A bow string would have been wrapped around tightly around a shaft to provide rotary motion. The shaft would have been anchored in the stone depression and incased with tinder.
- 3. As the shaft was spun using the bow and string, friction would have been created to produce heat and sparks and thus fire.
- 4. Conversely the stone would be placed on top of the bow drill shaft as a weight to force the drill shaft down onto a piece of wood containing the tinder to be ignited.
- 5. Grinding stones to crush minerals and seeds for the making of paint pigments.
- 6. Grinding stones for the crushing of plant material to make medicines.
7. Nut cracking devices.
One or some or all of these theories may be correct but most collectors today believe that the primary use of these rocks was to crack nuts. During the Archaic and Woodland Periods in Eastern North America, much nf the land was covered by hardwood forests such as oak, walnut, hickory, beech and chestnut. These trees produced their seeds, as do all plants, for the purpose of reproduction of the species. In the fall of the year, these seeds ripened and fell to the ground where they could have been easily picked up and used as a diet staple by the native humans as well as being eaten by animals such as deer and turkey. The oak trees, of course, produce acorns which are not today considered an eatable nut by us but were most likely eaten by the ancients. The problem with acorns is that they contain tannic acid which is bitter to the taste. The acorns could, however, have been eaten by removing the meat from the shell using a hammer and nutting stone and placing the nut in a basket or shallow depression in the ground and pouring hot lye water (the lye water derived by soaking ashes of burned hardwood trees in water) over the acorn meat which would eventually wash away the tannin. The nut meat could have then been ground on a grinding stone or mortar and used as a flour or meal to thicken stews or to make a type of gruel. The seeds of the walnut, hickory, beech and chestnut trees are very good food materials as well as the nut oils being used for cooking and would have been processed by cracking the shells and placing the nuts in boiling water which would further crack the shell. The shells would then drop to the bottom of the container while the nut meat as well asIthe nut oil would float to the top. These nuts and oil would have been removed and also used in soups as well as the nut meat being simply eaten without further cooking. And as a byproduct, the nut shells would have been burned in the fires to produce heat and as a cooking source. These scenarios were observed and recorded by early European explorers during the Historic Period and there is no reason not to believe that they were also used by natives during the prehistoric periods.
So, regardless of your belief as to the uses of these artifacts that we call Nutting stones, they most likely were used to crack nuts as well as to crush seeds such as smartweed and marsh elder and sunflower. As more nuts and seeds were cracked and ground into the stones, the hollows were, over time, increased in depth and circumference to the sizes as we find them today. Nutting stones are usually found in or around hardwood forests (or at least what were forests a millennium ago) and because of their size and weight factor, they were probably left in a good mast producing area year after year by the aboriginals.
Today we call them artifacts but to the natives hundreds and thousands of years ago, they were simply another item in their inventive toolkit with which to work at the daily task of finding enough of Mother Nature’s bounty to eat. When you find one of these flat rocks with the indentations in one or both sides, stop and look around at the nut producing trees and allow your mind to escape to many, many years ago and envision yourself cracking the tree seeds to make dinner using your hammer stone and anvil — the often overlooked by us but important to the ancients -the Nutting stone.
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