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Did an Inuit man turn frozen feces into a knife? Scientists try it with their poop

Science can be complicated and messy — but usually not this messy.

To test a popular story in which an Inuit man turned his frozen feces into a working knife, Kent State University researchers froze poop and fashioned it into knives of their own, according to findings published in the October edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Streaks of fecal matter answered the researchers’ question: The knives melted when they were dragged across a hairless pig hide instead of slicing through it, as photos taken by the researchers during the experiment show.

“Knives manufactured from frozen human feces do not work,” researchers concluded.

The researchers were intimately involved in their study. Metin Eren, a Kent State anthropology professor and one of the study’s authors, told McClatchy news group by email Thursday that the “feces were indeed mine, as well as the lab co-director’s, Dr. Michelle Bebber.”

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A frozen knife fails to cut into pig hide. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports

But why carry out the experiment in the first place? The researchers said it was to test the validity of “what is now arguably one of the most popular ethnographic accounts of all time.”

The researchers pointed to Wade Davis’ 1998 book, “Shadows in the Sun,” as a source from which the Inuit fable began to spread in popular culture and scientific literature.

In his book, Davis writes: “There is a well known account of an old Inuit man who refused to move into a settlement. Over the objections of his family, he made plans to stay on the ice. To stop him, they took away all of his tools. So in the midst of a winter gale, he stepped out of their igloo, defecated, and honed the feces into a frozen blade, which he sharpened with a spray of saliva. With the knife he killed a dog. Using its rib cage as a sled and its hide to harness another dog, he disappeared into the darkness.”

The researchers noted that Davis has conceded the story might be “apocryphal” — the Inuit who relayed the story might have been “pulling his leg.”

But the researchers’ report said that to “support for the credibility of the story, Davis cites the auto-biographical account of Peter Freuchen, the Danish arctic explorer … (who) describes how he dug himself a pit to sleep in and woke up trapped by snow. Every effort to get out that he tried failed. Finally, he recalled seeing dog’s excrement frozen solid as a rock. So, Freuchen defecated in his hand, shaped it into a chisel, and waited for it to freeze solid.”

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Freuchen said the chisel worked and he was able to free himself.

However, the researchers said Freuchen was the only person who could attest that his poop chisel worked — and that there are some key differences between a chisel and a knife.

“The mechanics of use are distinct, and the worked substrates in the Inuit and Freuchen cases are different,” the researchers wrote. “The Inuit case features the cutting and slicing motions on tissue, muscle, and tendon; the Freuchen case presents the pounding and chipping of snow.”

Eren ate a high-protein diet full of fatty acids for eight days — much like an arctic diet — to “procure the necessary raw materials” for their experiment, the researchers said. On day four, the team started collecting the feces. Some of the fecal matter was put in ceramic knife molds, while other samples were molded by hand into a knife shape.

Before the experiment began, the knives were stored at -20 degrees Celsius, which is roughly -4 degrees Fahrenheit.

To see if the knives were workable, the researchers didn’t actually hack away at a dog: Instead, they said they relied on pig parts to create a test “that involved the simple slicing of … hide, muscle, and tendons. We reasoned that if knives manufactured from human feces cannot cut hide, muscle, and tendons in a simple, controlled setting, then the notion that such knives could be used to butcher an entire animal would also not be supported.”

The researchers began their cutting on the hide, suspecting it would be easier to slice through than tendon or muscle — but none of the knives worked, and instead “melted upon contact, leaving streaks of fecal matter,” the researchers said.

Knives made from the feces of another researcher who had eaten a traditional Western diet failed as well, researchers said.

“With some difficulty, only the shallowest of slices (in hide) could be produced, and the knife-edge still quickly melted and deteriorated,” the researchers wrote.

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Researchers wrote that “a shallow slice could be produced in the subcutaneous fat on the underside of the hide, but the knife-edge still quickly melted and deteriorated.” Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports

The report concluded with researchers urging other anthropologists to test out “unsupported claims, assumptions, rumors, and urban legends” whenever they can.

“While the narrative that indigenous and prehistoric people are technologically resourceful and innovative is widely supported, these narratives suffer when an untested claim is used to support it,” the researchers wrote. “If one untested claim is used to support a stance — even if that stance is otherwise supported, ethical, or just — then there is no logical reason why a second untested claim cannot then be invoked.”

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.
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