Having a career in science often means enjoying the thrill of discovery. Gaining a better understanding of the world around us is among the most noble of professional pursuits. Other times, you may find yourself crafting a knife out of frozen feces.
In an experiment reported by Sapiens, researchers at Kent State University recently tested the validity of an old and possibly apocryphal tale involving an Inuit man whose family wanted him to join them in a new settlement. When he insisted on living a solitary life on the ice, the family took away his tools. The man indignantly used his bowel movement to forge a blade to kill a dog for his rib cage and hide—which he repurposed as a sled—and disappeared into the countryside. Scientists wanted to see if it would really be possible to create a bladed tool out of poop.
The study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, contains a spoiler in its title: “Experimental Replication Shows Knives Manufactured from Frozen Feces Do Not Work.” Lead author Metin Eren, director of archaeology and assistant professor of anthropology at Kent State, fully committed to the task, eating a high-protein diet typical of the Inuit for eight days and preserving his excrement. “Raw material collection did not begin until day four,” he writes, though it’s unclear whether that was due to a need to create distance from the remnants of a contemporary diet or whether he was constipated.
The waste was manipulated into two blades, one shaped by hand and the other by a knife mold, then frozen at -20°C. Immediately prior to use, they were subjected to dry ice at -50°C to ensure firmness. A metal file was used to hone the cutting edge.
Armed with this weaponized fecal matter, Eren tried to mimic how the Inuit would have used such a tool, attempting to cut into animal hide with it—in this case, pig hide. Lacking the properties of steel, the waste simply turned to mush when pressed against flesh. This remained the case even when Eren solicited the bowel contents of a colleague eating a more traditional Western diet. (A conversation that was unfortunately not recounted.) Only the most pliable subcutaneous fat of the pig could be penetrated before the knife became blunted.
“…Our results suggest that knives manufactured from frozen human feces are not functional,” Eren writes, adding that “we gave our knives the best possible chance to succeed and they still could not function.”
The value of a poop-based tool appears to be nil, but the story might still have resonance: scholars familiar with the tale believe it could have been a figurative attempt to describe the resourcefulness of the Inuit.