Articles

The Ancient Nutting Stones

Nuts! Nut! Nuts!    We modern humans like these fruits of hardwood trees because they taste good and because they are good sources of protein.  But what if these modern times were actually hundreds or even thousands of years ago?  Would we still be eating these forest produced morsels?  By all educated guesses, the ancient inhabitants of the Americas did so but not necessarily because they were good between meals snacks.  The Amerinds, instead, consumed these tiny treats because they were readily available in the vast forests.  Since there were no grocery stores from which to procure foods any natural occurring nutrition sources, that were available, were gathered and eaten.  The natives only needed to break open the hard shells enclosing these kernels - which they did by using the ancient nutting stones.

Certainly as early as the Paleo Period, or 10,000 BC, the primeval Americans ate what was in their habitats for the taking, including animals and fish and roots and the plentiful nuts.  But since they had no mechanical devices with which to remove the nut meat from the shells, they had to develop tools with which to crack these difficult-to-open husks.  So they began laying the unaltered nut on a piece of stone and pressing or hitting it with another stone – thus the nutting stone was born.

Many collectors of Indian artifacts, who have spent time walking plowed fields searching for arrowheads and spearpoints, have at one time or another discovered these amorphous hard and relatively soft stone artifacts.  They are essentially naturally shaped rocks, often somewhat flat, that have small to medium sized indentations in one or more of the stone surfaces.  Careful analysis of these nutting stone depressions will clearly show that the concavities are not natural but were man-made by repeated hammering and/or rotary grinding.  Nutting stones are made of many lithic materials from hard granite, basalt and quartzite to softer sandstone, schist and limestone.  The Piedmont ancients probably also used wood as anvils for cracking the shells but these easy to deteriorate materials would not have lasted in the acidic soils of the Southeast. The rock types of nutting stones have been found throughout North Americas wherever hardwood trees grow.  But were they actually used for cracking nuts?  There are several theories as to the exact usage of these stones, some of which are shown below:

 

  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 by using a bow drill.  A bow string would have been wrapped tightly around a shaft to provide rotary motion.  The shaft would have then been anchored in a stone depression and encased with tinder.  As the shaft was spun, using the bow for momentum, friction would have been created to produce heat and sparks and thus fire.
  3. Conversely, the stone would be placed on top of the bow drill shaft as a weight to force the shaft down onto a piece of wood containing the tinder to be ignited.
  4. Grinding stones to crush minerals and seeds for making paint pigments.
  5. Grinding stones for the crushing of plant materials to make medicines.
  6. Nut cracking devices.

 

One or some or all these theories may be correct but most students of archaeology do believe that the primary usage of these rocks was to crack open nuts.  During the Archaic and Woodland Periods (8,000 BC to AD 1,000) in Eastern North America, much of the land was covered in hardwood forests including oak, hickory, walnut, beech and chestnut.  These trees produced their fruits, as do all plants, for the purpose of reproduction of the species.  Normally in the fall of each year, these seeds or nuts ripen and fall to the ground where they could have been easily picked up and used as a diet staple by the ancient native humans as well as being eaten by animals such as deer and turkeys.  The oak trees produce acorns which are not, today, considered an eatable nut by humans but were most likely eaten by the Indians.  The problem with acorns is that they contain tannic acid which is bitter to the taste.  These nuts could, however, have been eaten by removing the kernel from its encasement and then removing the astringent.  This was accomplished by soaking the acorn meat in lye water which was derived by immersing the ashes of burned hardwood trees into heated water.  With enough soaking in enough lye water, the tannin would eventually be washed away thus altering the acorn to an eatable state.  The nut meat could have then been pulverized on a mortar and grinding stone and the resulting flour or meal used to thicken stews or to make a type of gruel.  The seeds of walnut, hickory, beech and chestnut trees are good raw food materials without any further actions other than them being removed from the protective shell.  They would also have been used for cooking by cracking the shell and placing the nuts in boiling water which would have furthered the fracturing.  The shells would then have dropped to the bottom of the water container while the nut meat as well as the oils would have floated to the top of the vessel liquid.  These food nuggets and oils would have then been removed and the nut meat eaten and the oil used in stews and soups as flavoring.  And as a by-product, the shells, after drying, would have been burned in the cooking and heating fires.  These scenarios were observed and recorded by European explorers beginning in the early sixteenth century AD and there is no reason to not believe that the same methods were also used by the prehistoric natives.

Regardless of your individual beliefs as to the uses of these tools called nutting stones, they were most likely used to crack nuts a well as to crush seeds such as smartweed, marsh elder and sunflower to be used as cooking herbs.  As more nuts and seeds were cracked and ground into the stones, the individual depressions were, over time, increased both in depth and circumference to the sizes as we find them today.  Nutting stones are usually found around hardwood forests (or at least where the forests were maybe a millennium ago).  Because of their size and weight, they were probably left in good mast producing areas year after year to be used by the aboriginals.

Today, we call these stones artifacts but to the natives hundreds or thousands of years ago, they were simply another item in their inventive toolkit with which to work at the daily task of gathering enough of Mother Nature’s bounty to provide nourishment.   If you find one of these somewhat strange rocks with indentations in one or both sides, stop and look around at the nut producing forests.  Then allow your mind to escape to many years ago and envision yourself cracking the tree seeds with your stone anvil and hammer in order to provide dinner.  These included the necessary meal preparations using the often overlooked by us, today, but important to the Indians – the ancient nutting stones.

 

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Griffin, James B., Editor                                                      1952

    ARCHAEOLOGY OF EASTERN UNITED STATES

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Hudson, Charles                                                                  1976

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Maus, James E.                                                                     2008

    “Nutting Stones”, CENTRAL STAES ARCHAEOLOGICAL SOCIETY JOURNAL, Vol. 55, No. 2

Peacock, Evan                                                                                   1989

    “Microdebitage from Cached Pitted Stones”, MISSISSIPPI ARCHAEOLOGY

Rights, Douglas L.                                                                1947

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Ward, H. Trawick & R. P. Stephen Davis, Jr.                                 1999

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Watts, Steve                                                                          1997

    “The Nutting Stone”, THE BULLETIN OF PRIMATIVE TECHNOLOGY

Wetmore, Ruth Y.                                                                 1975

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Witthoft, J.                                                                             1969

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     OF MARYLAND