Primitive skills are essential for an independent and autarkic life in harmony with one’s environment. They are fun to practice, extremely rewarding, and often have a playful character.
It is essential to know how to survive without modern technology, since we can not be sure how much Climate Breakdown will disrupt our lives in the next decades and how much technology will still be available by then.
One of the most fundamental things to know is undoubtedly how to start a fire without lighter/matches. We as a species have become (rather pathetically) dependent on fire – yet the vast majority of people today have not the slightest clue as to how to accomplish this basic feat of human existence without modern technology.
While hand and bow drills are the most widely known technique for making fire, if there is bamboo available in your environment (as in our case), using a fire saw is much easier and requires less skill.
VIDEO FIRE SAW
A variation is the so-called fire thong, where a pullstring (usually wood, bamboo or rattan fibre) is used to create friction through pulling your hands up and down.
Hunter-gatherers in Thailand and Malaysia (like the Mlabri or the Penan) have long used flint stones to start a fire – and we’re trying to obtain some, too.
Obtaining food and water
The most essential thing – even more important than fire – is obtaining food and water from one’s environment.
Gathering food from the wild requires an extensive knowledge of one’s local environment – but with this precondition, feeding yourself is not difficult.
Hunting is a lot more difficult, and requires extreme skill (with bow & arrow or blow pip) and knowledge of animal bevaior and movements, feeding places, water holes, etc.
Trapping is much easier than actively stalking animal pray, yet not as efficient. A variety of snares, slings, or even dug-out pits can be used for this (we won’t go into any detail because of the precarious legal situation concerning trapping here in Thailand).
As for water: the easiest way to find water is to look for bamboo, which is easily found in almost every forest in Southeast Asia. Inside the segments of the bamboo stem water is collected that can easily be used if there is no other water source around during a walk in the jungle – or as an exclusive refreshment. It is very pure, since it got filtered through the whole bamboo plant. The best time to obtain water from bamboo is in the morning (6-10am), when the plant pushes water from its root system to its leaves. Usually the most water is contained in the bottom segments of older trees which are already spotted. It can be obtained by cutting off the top (careful not to split the bamboo) or drilling a hole in the upper part of the stem segment with a machete. A simple straw can be made in two seconds from a small bamboo branch.
Other sources of water include wild banana trees: if you cut them at the base, water will flow out of the trunk – make sure you have a container (such as a cup-shaped leaf) ready to catch the water. Be sure to also eat the heart of the banana trunk you just cut – it’s a pretty good jungle vegetable. The remaining stub of the banana tree can be carved out so that it resembles a bowl, which will automatically fill with water several times over the next few hours.
IMAGE BANANA STUB
Most of the time we still combine primitive techniques with modern ones – for instance, we still use nails and screws. We plan on building a primitive hut from all-natural materials in the upper part of our garden as an experiment.
If you use natural building materials, they tend to have a better overall performance, produce no trash since they are 100% biodegradable, but are rather limited in their durability. A roof made from natural materials such as various palm leaves, grasses or bamboo pieces blocks off the heat of the sun very effectively and is therefore much better than metal sheet roof tiles. Poles and walls from wood and/or bamboo look beautiful, are lightweight and can easily be replaced, but are subject to termite attacks and rotting when exposed to humidity.
For the roof of the canteen at our last project we used a large palm leaf called “bai thang”, which is durable and very easy to process.
It grew in front of one of our neighbors house and therefore didn’t cost anything, didn’t require transportation and was also used to maintain and repair all other roofs.
Here we experiment with several species of palm as thatch. Salak and wild betel nut are two abundant species that are moderately durable, so we will use those for our primitive dwelling.
Any tree of the jackfruit family (cempedak, marang, breadfruit, etc.) can be used to obtain an extremely sticky latex by making a small incision in the trunk.
This is the easiest technique, using only a leaf, a small twig to fix the leaf into a cup shape, and some grass to tie it to the tree.
One cut will yield about one soda bottle lid full (more if you keep the wound open by scratching out the dry latex), so for larger quantities several cuts in a V-shape may be made. The resulting glue is sticky enough that hunter-gatherers in Malaysia use it to as bird lime (to catch birds – boil the latex down to concentrate it, spread it on a stick, and wait for them to land).
Primitive rope and cord
We make rope from the fiber of tree bark which is strong enough to build hammocks from it (even though we need a lot more rope for an actual hammock). This is the first rudimentary try of making rope:
This plant fiber based rope has a durability from a few months to one or two years, depending on the plant you use. A very strong fiber can be obtained from the bark of the Melinjo (“phak miang”) tree – the rope is so strong that people used it for fishing nets and rods, it even withstands being used in sea water (see ‘Primitive fishing methods’ below).
A short-term rope can be made made easily from the fiber of a banana trunk (see Rare Banana Collection).
Primitive fishing methods
Many hunter-gatherer tribes use plant poisons to fish in small streams, it is a very effective method to catch many small to medium sized fish in a short time.
We tested a primitive fishing method using plant poison from the root of a tree called “yaan sao dam”, which is crushed and thrown into a small river. It contains a chemical that depletes the water of oxygen, forcing the fish to come to the surface for breathing, where you can easily just collect them by hand. After 5-10 minutes it begins mixing with the arriving fresh water and soon loses its effectiveness.
Soon we will try to make a fishing rod from the bark of the “phak miang” tree, which is very tenuous but strong and durable even in sea water.
The spiky vine-like extension of rattan leaves (we call them “Nature’s barbed wire”) can be used as a fishing rod as well (albeit for small fish only), you just remove all pairs of spikes except the last one and tie a worm around it just above the last row of spikes.
Building primitive instruments is easy, quick and a lot of fun – whether it is a drum or a simple flute from bamboo. Mostly it takes only a few tries to produce a beautiful sounding instrument.
Building a bow
For building a bow we use rattan wood, which is easily found in the jungle. It is very flexible, yet hard to break. If you soak rattan in water it becomes even more flexible, and you can harden it in the desired position by heating it carefully over a fire. The first version of the bow was a little too thin, and was therefore not very strong (low pulling force required to draw the bow), but it worked.
The hardest part is not making the bow itself, it is making the arrows. They have to be perfectly straight, smoothly finished and need to be feathered at the back end to ensure a straight flight.