Caribou Metatarsal Hide Scraper

John Shea stripping ligaments from a caribou metatarsal in preparation for making a hide scraper. Source:

I haven’t really mined the SFU Archaeology museum website yet – they seem to have had a bit of a makeover recently, though many of their online resources are achieving “vintage” status.  One such is the photo-essay on making a hide scraper from a caribou metatarsal, or the long, straight bone between the caribou ankle and its hoof – the long bone of the foot (ungulates walk on their tip toes).

The essay is a series of over 20 pictures showing step-by-step the process of making the scraper:

John Shea splitting the metatarsal. Source:

Caribou meat is eaten, and the rest of the animal is used in a variety of ways. The antlers are carved into many types of tools and tool handles as well as sculptures for sale. Caribou hoofs are strung onto a caribou skin cord and used as rattles.

Caribou hides are made into soft, warm clothing. Clothing used in summer has the hair removed. Winter clothing is made with the hair left on. Each caribou hair is hollow which traps air inside as well as between the hairs. This extra insulation makes caribou hair clothing warm even in -40 degree temperatures. Caribou skin clothing is an essential survival tool in northern latitudes.

The best time to hunt caribou for winter clothing is the fall, when the hair is firmly attached to the skin. In spring the caribou sheds, loosening the hair attachments. Summer clothing can be made from skins of animals killed in the spring.

To prepare caribou skin for tanning, the hide must be scraped. All fat, meat and connective tissue must be removed before the tanning proceeds. This can be done with a knife made from metal or stone, but these are sharp, and often cut the hide. A better tool is made from the bones of the caribou itself.

In the following series of photographs, Mr. John Shae makes a hide scraper from a caribou metatarsal (lower leg bone).

That’s the entirety of the essay, and while each photo is informative it comes with no explanatory text.  The entire essay ends rather abruptly soon after the photo below, which does not obviously show a finished tool.  The introductory text is terse and lacking in context and does not place the events in any community; nor is the author or photographer named – coming from SFU, I wondered if it is derived from Sylvia Albright’s excellent M.A. work,  published as Tahltan Ethnoarchaeology? I looked and saw no people named Shae (or Shea) mentioned – she does illustrate some different bone tools and hidescraping, ca. 1980.   (See below, and download Albright’s thesis here, which I am pretty sure is essentially identical to the published version).

Nonetheless, I was really happy to find this visual essay and will be pointing my students towards it for a couple of reasons:  it shows how to make such a tool of course, but more importantly it shows a traditional practice in the present and therefore emphasizes that these skills are still practiced and, it shows that a bone tool can have properties which make it preferable to a metal tool – at least until Lee Valley starts making mahogany and titanium hide scrapers.

Shea with the nearly complete hide scraper. Source:

Hide scrapers in use in Tahltan territory, NW B.C., ca. 1980. Source: Albright, 1982.

Members of the Tahltan First Nation scraping a frozen moose hide with the aid of bone tools, ca. 1980. Source: Albright 1982.

5 responses to “Caribou Metatarsal Hide Scraper

  1. Hi Quentin …

    Thanks for these photographs – what a cool series! The photo essay may well be inspired by Sylvia Albright’s research. I have a moose or caribou bone scraper like the ones in Albright’s picture. It is from Iskut and from the same era as Albright’s research. In my interviews with people who tanned hides, they described, not surprisingly, a tool kit of several tools each of which was used during different parts of the stretching, fleshing and tanning process. That tool was one of them.

    I have posted a photo of me working on a hide near Iskut in 2007. I am using a fleshing tool called a tagodi (long /o/), one that features a metal blade hafted onto a wooden shaft. The tagodi blade is sharp, but not really sharp, for fear of cutting the hide (as Shea notes). I found that using it effectively was really hard and time-consuming work. (That may be a tagodi leaning against the frame in the foreground of the last Albright picture you posted. If so, that picture points to the use of several different tools for scraping a hide.)

    The photo is here:

    The pictures of John Shea do not strike me as being in Tahltan territory – the large beach and low-lying terrain of the background is like nothing I have seen in that area.



  2. A John Shae is mentioned in the article linked below from the NWT. If Pokotylo is reading this blog, maybe he can confirm if it is the same man.

    Click to access Arctic42-2-139.pdf

    What I find interesting about all these pictures is trying to imagine the archaeological footprint from this activity. Poles strapped to trees, nothing apparently dug into the ground (indeed, in some of them the ground is frozen), tools with big handles that would be taken away, everythign else perishable except possibly some bone detritus. Would leave very little evidence behind, sometimes probably nothing.

    It is interesting that in one of two a recent Elfshot blogs about scraping a seal hide that he suggests that this whole business is much more pleasant (by modern western standards anyway) if done when its cold outside, at least for sea mammals.


  3. Hi Tad,

    That picture you post makes it clear what a whole-body activity hide scraping is. Albright gives a figure of 2-4 hours by a woman of “full strength”, just for this scraping stage.

    I should have posted the following as well, showing Tahltan making stone tools ca. 1980. Again, it speaks to the strategic and knowing way that technology is adopted – if new is better (in all senses – function, cost), it gets used, but if stone and bone tools are better, then they persist to the end of the 20th century. Obviously it is not just a “rational decision”, and notions of practice and habit may well enter into it as well, but I have seen comparable comments on adoption of muskets – too many variables vs. a bow and arrow. Anyway, it’s a useful corrective to slack assumptions to see stone tools used in British Columbia in 1980, and possibly still.

    Tahltan woman making stone tools (source: Albright 1982):

    Working ends of three Tahltan stone-bitted hide scrapers, ca. 1980. Source: Albright 1982):

    Tahltan person using a tagodi (thanks, Tad). Source: Albright 1982.

    Hi APM:

    I was mentally cataloguing SFU history thinking who might have been doing work in what looked to me more like the Yukon or NWT as well, and drew a blank – but nice digging!

    That elfshot blog is indeed excellent and fascinating:


  4. Your comments on adaptive use of stone tool technology reminds of something that George MacDonald told me many years ago, though I do not know his source for the information. He said that the Tsimshian women working in the canneries on the Skeena in the lat 1800’s and I think well into the 20th Century used cortex spall tools in preference to steel knives. If I remember correctly this was because they were easier to grip when covered in fish slime.


  5. A touch more digging gets us to the following article, co-authored by Barbara Winter now of the SFU Museum. I can’t access the whole article but the google snippet seems to indicate John Shae was one of her Dene teachers.


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