The frozen poop knife: debunking a popular myth

An example of a “hand-shaped” knife blade made out of frozen human feces by anthropologists at Kent State University. Image credits: Metin et al (2019).

Inuit stories can get pretty dark — probably a result of living in the constant cold of the Arctic and subarctic. But this particular story is something else.

According to legend, a family in the 1940s (or 50s, depending on the version) wanted to abandon the rough, nomadic lifestyle of the Inuits. But the grandfather wanted to stay. He refused to come along, clinging to his traditions. To push him to leave, the family took away all his tools. But instead, the man stepped outside, defecated, waited for his poop to freeze, and then fashioned it into a frozen blade, sharpening it with a spray of his saliva.

This is where it gets even darker — and if you want to be spared the gruesome details, you may want to skip this paragraph. Using his poop-fashioned blade, the man killed a dog, used its ribcage to fashion a sled and its hide to conceil another dog, and then just sled away on his ghastly construction, never to be seen again.

It’s a pretty good story. But according to researchers, it can’t be true.

For shits and giggles

The story was popularized by anthropologist Wade Davis in his book Shadows in the Sun, based on an encounter with an Inuit named Olayuk Narqitarvik. Narqitarvik claimed that the story is well known — but it’s not clear if the story was meant to be true and literal, or if it was more of a folk tale meant to showcase how Inuits can deal with adversity.

Among anthropologists, the story became well known, and stirred some debate. Some took it literally — supported by notes such as the one left by Danish Arctic explorer Peter Freuchen, who in his autobiography in 1953, recounted how he shaped excrement in the form of a chisel, waited for it to freeze, and then used it to escape from a pit of snow and ice (a claim that is also debatable).

There are plenty of stories on Inuit tenacity and resilience in the face of adversity. For instance, they fashioned sled runners from fish wrapped in skins and moss. But is the poop knife story real, or was it a funny story that Narqitarvik (or someone else) made up? It was anyone’s guess — until recently.

A qamutiik (Inuit sled) with runner dogs.

Making a poop knife

At some point, a high schooler named Metin Eren heard the story on NPR. Eren would go on to become an experimental archaeologist at Kent State University, Ohio. He wanted to put the story to the test, and had the right facilities to do it.

Eren runs a lab where he and colleagues recreate various historical tools. To create the right type of poop, Eren went on an “Arctic” diet for 8 days. Meanwhile, one of his colleagues, Michelle Bebber, was the “control poop” — consuming a regular Western diet. For five days, both collected their poop, storing it at −20 °C until the experiments began.

After enough raw material was harvested, two types of knives were built: either by hand, or in a mold.

A “knife mold”. Image credits: Eren et al (2019).

Understandably, the researchers didn’t want to slaughter an animal so instead, they just ordered some pig 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 write in the study.

Minutes prior to the experiment, the fashioned knife were removed from the freezer and further sharpened with a metal file — so they had an extra edge compared to the story. The knives were then buried for several minutes in −50 °C dry ice to ensure they’re frozen enough to cut. Except they didn’t.

A fake faecal falchion

Neither the molded nor the hand-shaped knives were able to cut through the hide. The Inuit-diet poop and the Western-diet poop knives performed equally badly — they couldn’t cut. Instead, even after being frozen at such low temperatures, they simply melted upon contact, leaving behind gross “streaks of fecal matter”.

Knives from the ceramic molds failed to cut or slice the pig hide, leaving only streaks. Image credits: Eren et al (2019).

“Our experiments assessed the functionality of knives made from human feces in controlled conditions that provided optimal conditions for success. However, they were not functional. “

The researchers did everything in their power, including sharpening the knives, but they did not cut. The only thing in the story that they didn’t do was to use saliva to sharpen the knives. “We are skeptical that saliva will increase fecal blade efficacy,” the team writes.

For this study, Eren received an Ig Nobel Prize — a yearly satirical award that celebrates ten unusual achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think.” But Eren rightfully points out that disproving urban myths is something researchers must actively try to do.

“Anthropologists must actively seek out unsupported claims, assumptions, rumors, and urban legends, and by testing them ensure any narratives that follow are as sturdy as possible.”

The anecdote may not be technically true, but its point still stands: Inuits don’t lose hope when faced with the cold, they are resourceful and savvy. That much is clearly true — poop knife or not.

“While much research has shown foragers to be technologically resourceful, innovative, and savvy, we suggest that this ethnographic account should no longer be used to support that narrative,” the researchers conclude.

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