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I have read that before Columbus, the Native Americans only had stone axes to cut down trees. The Europeans traded them metal axes in exchange for beaver furs. The metal axes cut down trees much faster than stone axes and were thus greatly favored.

But the Native American traditions of shaving their heads and beards seems to go way back before Columbus. What tools did they use to do this? Stone axes or stone knives seem pretty painful to the point of impossibility.

If it matters, I'm most interested in the Native American tribes in the plains and woody areas of North America. This would be approximately the eastern half of the continent.

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Like the modern Chinese, most Native Americans did not grow much facial hair to begin with. What sparse facial hair did grow was typically plucked out as soon as it appeared, according to accounts written by whites who lived with or near them. They didn't shave. Modern Native Americans often have a bit of admixture with Europeans or their descendants and so are able to grow a bit more facial hair, or at least don't mind letting it grow. So you may see them with mustaches and beards. In China, too, you can sometimes see men with relatively sparse beards and mustaches. But the really big and bushy beards and mustaches are sprouted by men from the Near East, Europe, or Africa. Or else the men from these areas really do shave, mostly with metal blades -- something Native Americans didn't have before Columbus, as they used stone and bone as their primary resources for cutting tools.

In South America the men used the sharp teeth of a small rodent to cut their head air in a sort of bob, according to anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. But even there, Chagnon says they plucked beard hairs as these came in. As a woman past the age of menopause who occasionally grows a beard-like hair, I can attest to the fact that one can simply grasp it with the fingernails and pluck it out, as long as one doesn't mind the teensy-weensy pain that causes. If one is going to talk about tweezers, one is going to allow the Native Americans to develop metallurgy, which opens a whole can of worms. Some of those around Central America had a little bit, but most didn't, you see. So what was everybody else doing? I tell you, just as Daniel Boone and all those other occasional captives tell us, they were just plucking them out as they came in. It's really not that big a deal when there aren't that many of them. Besides, after you've done it the first time, the skin toughens up and it's not that hard after that.

  • American Indians may not have grown much facial hair, but a number of cultures shaved all or parts of their head. Probably the best-known example has made it into contemporary culture as the "Mohawk" hairstyle. – jamesqf Mar 2 '17 at 20:07
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The advantages of a steel blade are 1) it's possible to make the blade arbitrarily large, 2) it's easy to sharpen the edge, and 3) steel holds that edge longer during use. For something like a sword or an axe, these advantages are hard to beat.

For small-scale cutting, however, obsidian and flint both hold sharper edges than steel. If you're making a scalpel or a razor blade, stone works just fine.

  • I think part of the confusion is the definition of "stone". When I think of Obsidian or Flint, I think of something much more smoother than a ordinary stone or rock. But technically I think they are both stones anyway. – DrZ214 Mar 2 '17 at 4:55
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    Flint is indisputably a type of rock. Obsidian is harder to classify -- it has a glass microstructure, where normal rocks are crystalline. – Mark Mar 2 '17 at 5:14

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