When, some weeks ago, I was first contacted by an online scientific publication asking me to review a submission on the subject of “shit knives”, I initially thought it was a hoax or some kind of practical joke. I had in mind the deliberately nonsensical papers written by Peter Boghossian, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay that were accepted for publication by academic journals such as Gender, Place and Culture. That so many editors fell for the ruse embarassed academics in a number of disciplines, especially once the scandal broke in the Wall Street Journal in October, 2018.
On the face of it, I couldn’t believe that a team of scholars would take on the “shit knife” as a scientific challenge. I meant no disrespect, but at a time when the entire world of the Inuit is literally melting beneath them, I found it hard to accept that any serious scholar, even the most reductionist, would exhaust time and money in such a pursuit. My interest was piqued when I learned from a reporter at Discover Magazine that the experiments were real, with results that had been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
For the record, I’ve never published in any academic or scientific journal a claim that Inuit people regularly employ tools made from human excrement. I have in several popular essays and talks repeated a story that I recorded at the tip of Baffin Island from a hunter, Olayuk Narqitarvik. In doing so, I’ve always recalled my sense at the time that it was a classic case of local people having some fun with a visiting tourist/anthropologist.
I’ve shared the “shit knife” story in public because it helps audiences grasp and understand the extent to which the Inuit are truly a people of the ice.
This said, I’ve also cited a curious comment from Peter Freuchen as he travelled with Knud Rasmussen on the Fifth Thule expedition. He recounts a time when, seeking shelter from a storm, he became trapped in a coffin of his own making, beneath his sled encased in ice. In his journal, he recalls very casually that as he struggled to escape, he thought of making a shit knife. Eren et al quote Freuchan in their paper. “I moved my bowels and from the excrement I managed to fashion a chisel-like instrument which I left to freeze… At last I decided to try my chisel and it worked” (Freuchen, 1953: 179).
Coming from one of the most accomplished of polar explorers, the life long partner of Knud Rassmussen, arguably the most perceptive and knowledgable scholar in the history of Arctic ethnography, this account certainly deserves attention. Still, given the distinct possibility that the anecdote might be used to denigrate the Inuit way of life, I’ve always presented the story as a metaphor, always prefacing my comments with a humorous denial that I was suggesting the existence of some kind of assembly line making such implements.
Here, for example, is a passage from my 2009 CBC Massey lectures, which appeared in bookform as The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. This excerpt is from pages 206-7.
Fearful for his life, his family took away all of his tools and weapons, thinking this would oblige him to leave the land. Instead, in the midst of a winter storm, he stepped out of their igloo, defecated, and honed the feces into a frozen blade, which he sharpened with a spray of saliva. With this knife, forged by the cold from human waste, he killed a dog. Using its rib cage as a sled and its hide to harness another dog, he disappeared into the darkness. This story may well be apocryphal, though I did find a reference to just such an implement in the Arctic journals of the Danish explorer Peter Freuchen. But true or not, it is a wonderful symbol of the ingenuity and resilience of the Inuit people, traits of culture that have allowed them to survive.
The entire point of the anecdote, a procedure that I’ve never claimed to have witnessed or been able to authenticate, is to remind audiences and readers that the Inuit do not fear the cold, they take advantage of it. This is indisputably true. A moist towel left out over night becomes a shovel by dawn. The runners of their sleds were made of fish, the cross bars of walrus meat. Freuchen quipped that if you ever run out of food in the Arctic you could always eat your sled.
I’ve shared the “shit knife” story in public because it helps audiences grasp and understand the extent to which the Inuit are truly a people of the ice. As hunters they depend on it for their survival, even as it inspires the very essence of their character and culture. The writer Gretel Ehrlich, who lived eight years among the Polar Eskimo in Greenland, suggests that it is the nature of ice, the way it moves, recedes, dissolves, and reforms with the seasons, that gives such flexibility to the Inuit heart and spirit. It follows that the melting and recession of the ice in a warming world represents for the Inuit not only a profound adaptive challenge, but also an overwhelming existential and psychological crisis. This is the essential point. The Inuit, who played no role in the creation of the climate crisis, are among those most directly and catastrophically suffering the consequences.
Setting aside my motivations, let’s consider the report by Eren et al strictly on its scientific merits. The authors to their credit are forthright about their methods and make no claim to have been able to replicate the conditions of the Arctic. They nevertheless appear to have overlooked a fundamental flaw in their experimental design.
The story I first heard from Olayuk Narqitarvik told of his grandfather having used an implement made from frozen human excrement to kill and skin a dog. In their experiments, Eren et al inexplicably tested their implements on the skin of a pig. Anyone who has sliced slabs from a side of bacon or gnawed on rind knows that pig skin and the skin of a dog are hardly equivalent. Olayuk did not say his grandfather used such an improvised tool to kill a walrus. Freuchan only claimed to have used a “shit knife” to punch through hardened snow, and he did so in the severe cold of the Arctic, not in the relative warmth (50 degrees F as noted by the authors) of a university laboratory.
What accounts for this blindspot? Was it fear of PETA and animal rights activists who don’t mind the experimental use of pigs, but draw the line at dogs? I suspect that it was, and I fully understand and sympathize with the challenge this presented to Eren and his colleagues.
Still, if true, it is surely ironic that a team of scientists, invoking the rigour of the scientific method, took on this challenge, as if operating in the realm of pure reason, while all the while they remained confined by their own cultural constraints, condemned to conduct an experiment that, by definition, betrayed the principles of objectivity that their science so earnestly proclaims.
In sharing these thoughts, it’s not my intention to challenge the results or belittle the efforts of the team that conducted the experiments reported in Eren et al. But surely if one wants to invoke the scientific method, and publish results as being conclusive, one must begin with a research protocol free of flaws that by definition limit the utility of your results and thus compromise your conclusions. In an experiment designed to test whether a tool forged by the cold from human waste could be used to kill a dog, surely the frozen implements created in the lab ought to have been tested on the skin of a dog.
Wade Davis is the Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk and Professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.
Davis, W., 2009 The Wayfinders, House of Anansi, Toronto
Freuchen, P., 1953. Vagrant Viking: My Life and Adventures. J. Messner, Inc, New York.
Melchior, Jillian Kay “Fake news comes to academia” The Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2018
Eren, M. I., Bebber, M. R., Norris, J.D., Perrone, A., Rutkoski, A., Mary, M.W., Raghanti, A., “Experimental replication shows knives manufactured from frozen human feces do not work,” Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 27 (2019) 102002