outgrown nails?
August 26, 2009 6:32 AM   Subscribe

what did prehistoric humans use to trim their toe/finger nails?

did they merely get worn away from daily use?

did they rip away once they were too long?

is there any archaeological evidence of ancient clippers/files?
posted by beukeboom to Health & Fitness (33 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Teeth most likely.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:35 AM on August 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Seconding teeth.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:35 AM on August 26, 2009

I'm pretty (110%) sure you can just pick nails off. I can't imagine that if I get by without clippers, prehistoric humans would need a tool when they had just as many fingernails and teeth as we do.
posted by wrok at 6:38 AM on August 26, 2009

They probably got worn away naturally. When you're making tools out of rocks, or grinding food against rocks, or moving around rocks, it's hard to keep your fingernails at any sort of length.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:39 AM on August 26, 2009 [4 favorites]

Thirding teeth. Up until I was 21, I used my teeth. Then I realized how gross my hands were and started using clippers.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 6:43 AM on August 26, 2009

How are you guys trimming your toenails with your teeth? That sounds gross!

Yeah, they would have trimmed their fingernails with their teeth, I'm pretty sure. And even now, I sometimes trim a toenail just with my hands. Not difficult.
posted by jdroth at 6:56 AM on August 26, 2009

Response by poster: i don't know about you guys, but i just had a hard time trying to clip my toenails using my teeth.

maybe everyone had a toenail buddy.
posted by beukeboom at 6:57 AM on August 26, 2009 [7 favorites]

I'm pretty (110%) sure you can just pick nails off.

If you use them, they get very thick and tough. My brother has bad eczema and constantly scratches. His nails are the thickest talons I've ever seen on a human. You'd be crazy to try and bite or peel them off like my flimsy nails.
posted by anti social order at 7:00 AM on August 26, 2009

I'm going with wear. We evolved afaik not to wear shoes, so it's likely that our toenails would be worn off from climbing and walking. I don't know this...but that's my guess.
posted by sully75 at 7:05 AM on August 26, 2009

This is probably not a significant factor, but the softness of one's nails depends on one's diet. when I don't drink milk for a while my nails are noticeably softer.
posted by water bear at 7:05 AM on August 26, 2009

This is probably not a significant factor, but the softness of one's nails depends on one's diet. when I don't drink milk for a while my nails are noticeably softer.

It must be the calcium because while I don't drink milk at all (EW, milk), I eat hard cheeses and my nails are really, really strong.
posted by cooker girl at 7:08 AM on August 26, 2009

I assume natural wear as well. Running barefoot, working with hands a lot, the like. Basically, I would assume that if people were 'advanced' enough to have long fingernails, they were also 'advanced' enough to either create and use nail clippers of some variety, or have slaves that would act as toenail buddies.
posted by molecicco at 7:16 AM on August 26, 2009

I always assumed that biting toenails is how yoga started.
posted by jefficator at 7:31 AM on August 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

I doubt toenails are as much of a problem when feet aren't confined in shoes.
posted by zadcat at 7:41 AM on August 26, 2009

Some people might find this gross, but I mostly just pick at my fingernails (and toenails) with my other fingernails, and I keep them down in that way. Honestly, they look fine, and while I still use a clippper everyonce in a while I would be fine without one.
posted by kylej at 7:47 AM on August 26, 2009

I can't pick them off, either. I was told a good way to test if you're getting enough minerals is trying to bend down your thumbnail with your index finger-- when it won't budge, you know you're good.

Whenever I'm out in public and chip a nail, I even it out by repeatedly drawing it across a rough patch of concrete or rock. And here's a picture of how a chimp cleans his fingernails.
posted by aquafortis at 7:51 AM on August 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

In the Paleolithic, at least, there is no evidence of anything to do with nail care.
posted by The Michael The at 7:51 AM on August 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sometimes, if I break a nail and I'm nowhere near clippers or a file, I'll rub the jagged edge against a nearby rough surface to smooth it out a bit. Rocks or tree bark would do the trick, but on the other hand prehistoric humans were probably less bothered about broken nails than me with all my modern conveniences.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:56 AM on August 26, 2009

I have this weird vision of stone- and bronze-age nail clippers found among the fossils.

I'm guessing you don't have a cat. If you did, you might ask: how the heck did cats survive in the wild before there were humans to wrap them in towels and cut their claws with little clippers?

Same answer.
posted by rokusan at 8:01 AM on August 26, 2009

Another vote for picking and peeling. That's how I shortened my fingernails and toenails until I was, I dunno, 12 or 13.
posted by xbonesgt at 8:03 AM on August 26, 2009

When your toenails get to a certain length, it's hard to keep them from breaking. You'll see people in the Guinness Book of records or whatever who have mile-long toenails, but they've been really anal-retentively careful for years and years in order to get to that point — that's why the record is impressive. Most of us, living a normal, reasonably active life, would have a hard time growing them more than a centimeter or so even if we wanted to.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:06 AM on August 26, 2009

what do you mean by "prehistoric"? that terms covers a pretty wide range of humanity
posted by jammy at 8:08 AM on August 26, 2009

Response by poster: rokusan .... actually, i have two cats.

they appear to have a clawing instinct that i seem to lack.

also, they shed little claw-skins from time to time ... perhaps i need to get a rock and see if i can duplicate their success at being independent of tools.

except for the rock, that is.
posted by beukeboom at 8:10 AM on August 26, 2009

If you work with your hands and run around on uneven surfaces without shoes, growing nails of any length is improbable.
posted by idiopath at 8:11 AM on August 26, 2009

I don't think I could take bits of my nails off with teeth or by peeling. And they're thick, but not ridiculously so.

Running my nails along brick or rock, however, works pretty well. I discovered this accidentally as a kid while lined up against a building for recess.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:26 AM on August 26, 2009

I would think that nails on both fingers and toes would have made useful weapons and tools. I also imagine that some of the smarter people would have found rocks useful for keeping them manageable.

We did not live very long, back then. I am sure that infections from nail problems were a part of that, as well as infections from other wounds.
posted by Danf at 8:31 AM on August 26, 2009

We learned in school that they would be worn off by work. As our teacher told us, the reason they grow in the first place is that they get worn down.
posted by kall at 8:40 AM on August 26, 2009

A well chipped flake of obsidian is still one of the sharpest edges obtainable.
posted by hortense at 10:22 AM on August 26, 2009

Other primates have nails and manage to get by without nail clippers, so I imagine some combination of constant use and biting keeps them manageable.
posted by zombiedance at 10:44 AM on August 26, 2009

The same way most animals do.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:22 AM on August 26, 2009

I'm going to go with a combination of both. I think it's just a natural instinct to pick at and groom oneself and I can't see why their habitat and way of life wouldn't wear down the nails some. Take a look at rabbits, pet rabbits have to have their nails trimmed from time to time or they will get long and cause all sorts of problems. Rabbits in the wild do not have nail clippers but their nails get worn down from digging in the dirt and just generally being a rabbit.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:01 PM on August 26, 2009

To take it to the next level. A combination of wear, teeth, picking, peeling, and smoothing with rocks.
posted by Muirwylde at 12:58 AM on August 27, 2009

I don't know if this helps, but in Old and Middle English, there was the word nægel-seax or nail sax. The word referred to either a razor or a very sharp small knife. I don't know what exactly this knife was used for, but the literal meaning of the word was 'nail knife'. Obviously this is from a historical period, but if people in medieval times were capable of cutting their nails with a knife, then any such blade could have fulfilled the same function for those in prehistoric times. I know that small fine blades have been within the capability of humans for at least ten thousand years, so perhaps this was one of their uses?

A couple of other things: scissors were invented in the bronze age, so potentially they could have been used to cut nails. It might be worth trying to find a museum collection that hold a small pair that would count as "toiletry" size. Also, you could just consult an anthropology book about any of the still existing stone age cultures and see how they manage their grooming needs. Indeed, that's probably the surest way of finding out, instead of speculation.
posted by Sova at 1:33 PM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

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