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Briar Patch Outdoors

Digging Sticks - The First Tool

by George Hedgepeth

Studies of primitive technologies by archaeologists turn up things like stone choppers, bone awls, clay pots, and shell beads. It would be a mistake to think that these durable materials were the only sources of tools for our ancestors however. Things like hide, fiber, and wood surely composed the balance of ancient tool kits.

Based on observations of the remnant populations of hunting and gathering peoples, I believe the ubiquitous digging stick may be the most ancient tool of humanity. Although it is hard to find prehistoric examples, they are well represented in ethnographic collections from recent times. Preservation issues account for their relative scarcity. How many thousands of years can we expect a simple piece of a stick to last?

The two reasons I believe the digging stick was so universal are its simplicity and its utility. Any sturdy branch or even the horn of an antelope will be suitable with very little modification. The amount of calories that can be added to a diet with one of these simple tools is considerable. In fact, the amount of pay-off received for the effort required to make this tool is huge!

When I make one of these handy items in the bush, I first choose which form I want. There are two basic choices - a long version and a short. These may have other variations, such as shape of the point, but length is the main consideration in how they are used.

A long digging stick is from walking stick to staff length, say from three to 6 feet. A short digger is small enough to be tucked into a belt. About eighteen inches works well. Remember, these are approximate sizes only, and nothing to get too exact about.

The stick has to be relatively sturdy. I like about one inch in diameter for the smaller version and at least an inch and a half for the longer style. Green wood can work in a pinch, but seasoned hardwood is MUCH preferred. Green wood can be fire hardened at the working end to improve performance. What generally is unsatisfactory is dead wood picked up off of the damp ground.

The heavier end of the stick is rounded off to be comfortable against the palm. The thinner end is given a wedge or chisel shaped point that is off center. This is much more durable than a fine, cone shaped point. This shaping of point and butt can be done with an edged tool in a hurry, or slower with abrasion against a coarse rock.


The many functions of this simple tool are valuable beyond measure in a primitive setting. They can dig roots, seep wells, latrines, fire pits, and post holes. They can excavate animal dens and termite mounds. They can knock down high nuts and fruits, and can then process them. Slow game, such as turtles, snakes, possums, young turkeys, molting geese, and armadillos can be knocked down and harvested.

A long digging stick makes a great hiking staff. This is especially handy for crossing fast moving streams. It also provides good reach for knocking down ripe fruit. It is useful as a lever for moving logs or big rocks. They are a great defensive tool - very handy against aggressive dogs and camp raiding raccoons. There has to be a million uses for a stout six-foot long pole!

The shorter style is easily tucked into a belt, and this frees up a foragerís hands. It works very well as a bark spud for skinning trees. Also, this size can act as a perfectly good short-range throwing stick. One tool can provide a tremendous amount of calories - both meat and vegetable!


To dig with this tool, plunge the tip deep into the soil and lever back. A shallow root like an onion can be popped right up to the surface. Deeper roots, like burdock, will require repeated effort. If the point is stabbed into the ground and then drawn towards the digger, one can make a trench for a fire or latrine. For deep holes, use the digging stick to break up the soil and a large mussel shell to lift out the fill.

One variation that I like has a projecting branch or a fork at the handle end. This allows the stick to pull down high branches, snatch things from out of the water, pull pots from the fire, and makes for a great back scratcher. One can also hang the tool up instead of laying it near the fire where someone else might mistake it for fuel.

Try out a digging stick. Their versatility and simplicity, along with their ease of construction, are remarkable. They fed mankind for eons, and can still do so.


Also see related article: A Forager's Bibliography

- Woodsrunner Tips -

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Send an email to georgehedgepeth(at)hotmail(dot)com

Briar Patch Outdoors
219 Holmes Street
Durand MI 48429
(989) 288-0168

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