Ethnographic and Aboriginal knives – at one time I could hardly spell these terms let alone understand what they meant. The title itself is enough to turn away crowds at any self-respecting knife show or swap meet. If you find yourself in this spot as well, then let me explain what these are.

First of all, Ethnographic knives (and weapons) are the collection and study of those that are unique to a particular people, culture or ethnicity. Collecting Samurai swords, that is to say swords of the Samurai, would be considered in this category as they are uniquely Japanese, but think too Native American knives, Persian knives, Zulu knives, Indonesian knives, etc.

Aboriginal knives (and weapons) are those that belong to a people who are considered the first or earliest known of their kind present in a region. An example would be the Inuit knives from Alaska, Canada or Greenland, or the Chukchi knives of Eastern Siberia.

Collecting knives in either of these two categories can be extremely challenging and rewarding. Collecting original and authentic pieces can be tricky – let alone expensive, so I have made the decision to also include top-grade replicas and modern renditions. Sometimes this is the only way to have a representation of a great knife in a private collection.

To help you,  the collector, understand and better appreciate what is good and acceptable in such collections, I have put together some broadly accepted terms that will help the you determine if a piece is right for your own collection.

Ethnographic collecting is probably the easier of the two, because the timeline for pieces in this category is from pre-history to present day. It’s about collecting the tools and weapons of a culture or ethnicity, not necessarily during a specific time period. A modern Karambit knife from Indonesia – more specifically from a household in Indonesia, is an example. Buying a Karambit from XYZ Knife Company is just buying a Karambit. Another example is my Szlachta Polowanie Sztylet pictured below. It is a classic Polish weapon with design influences dating back to the times of fending off the Mongols and Tartars.

Aboriginal knives are a little more tricky, and expensive. Within this category, the purists prefer pieces prior to the twentieth century – mostly because pure aboriginal peoples still existed in large numbers throughout the world then. While this is a good standard, it presumes a time period boundary for what is acceptable as an aboriginal piece.

For myself, I have broadened the definition to include any piece that is made by descendants from such a people, and who practice the skills and art of their ancient traditions to craft the knife. For me, it’s not about when the knife was made, but by whom. This definition has allowed me to widely grow my collection where I would not have been able to afford to so otherwise.  

Here is an example of a Navajo Dance knife that actually is both Ethnographic and Aboriginal at the same time. The knife was made by David Begay, a Navajo artisan who decorated this knife specifically for me – white over red beads symbolizing my Polish heritage. The bone knife is deer bone fashioned using traditional means. The wrap handle is buckskin, as is the sheath. The medallion in the center is a piece of dried oak, rather than the silver Gaucho medallion seen on modern copies. The knife was then blessed and was presented to me as a finished product.

What makes this knife ethnographic is that it is Native American. What makes this knife aboriginal is that this particular bone knife design, decoration, and use is specific to the Navajo. 

There are a few additional terms to grapple with that actually can apply to any category one decides to collect – including WWII pieces. It’s a short list, but the terms are easily interchanged which often make selecting a knife more difficult.

Authentic – a knife that is not false in its representation; it is not a copy of or a replica of or an interpretation of something else. It is the genuine article. A common misunderstanding of something "authentic" is that it must be old. Not true. An authentic piece is not necessarily held to a time period - it can be ancient or modern. Using my bone knife as an example, it is an authentic Navajo bone knife made for the purpose of being used in modern Navajo dance. It was never presented as a historical artifact, but as an authentic knife made by a Navajo artisan. But then, so are all the other and fancier bone knives in the Navajo Trading Post…right? Um, no. Those are copies and replicas not used by the makers and are intended for a public audience as souvenirs. 

Replicas & Copies– many of the knives in various trading posts and gift shops from Arizona to Tahiti are either replicas or copies. Collecting ethnographic or aboriginal replicas is as legit as collecting the real deal – and much less expensive. There is a real difference however, between a replica and a copy, although they are often and casually used to mean the same thing. A true replica is a reproduction of the original in exacting detail. A copy often omits or adds details not found on the original artifact.

A modern replica of a WWII trench knife for example, is made with the same exacting qualities as the original – same steel type, same bluing or parkerization, same cuts of leather, same sheath pattern, and depending on the original being replicated, include armory proof marks and serial numbers. If a museum is willing to present it in place of the original, then it’s a good replica.

A copy of the same trench knife however, may also include the company’s name, or manufactured country of origin, or not bend the cross guard just right. A copy may also omit specific details, such as rivets instead of studs, plastic instead of Bakelite. Copies can also take on artistic interpretation not found on either original or authentic pieces.

Replicas and copies each have their place in a quality knife collection. When the original or replica cannot be obtained, there is nothing wrong with a good copy! The point of this discussion is to know the difference before you buy, or invest as is sometimes the case.

Collecting Ethnographic and Aboriginal knives and weapons – be they authentic, original, replica, or copies – can be a lot of fun. You can’t help but learn something new when you do. Collecting such pieces also adds a unique perspective and diversity to the collection.

The following photos are additional examples of Ethnographic and Aboriginal knives and weapons. I identify each as to its classification, and whether or not it is authentic, replica, or a copy. 

My Aztec ceremonial knife. This is a copy that borderlines replica quality status. The actual knife that this copy represents is at the Teotihuacán Museum at the temple site, and it is magnificent! The blade on my knife is actual hand knapped green obsidian, just like the original. The handle, however, is a polymer resin formed from a mold and fitted to the blade. The making of these copies is control by licensing the manufacturer, then licensing who can sell them. You can see and feel the mold seam across the handle, and the epoxy that holds the blade to the handle. 

This is my Szlachta Polowanie Sztylet, or Polish Nobleman’s Hunting Dirk. This is a stylized copy of similar dirks from the North East regions of Poland with historical influences of early Mongol design. A Slavic ethnographic piece, it is a copy as interpreted by Gerlach Cutlery, Poland’s oldest and largest cutlery company (1760 - 2014 • GERLACH • POLSKA). We know this is a stylized copy because “Gerlach Nierdzewne” (Gerlach Stainless) is etched on the ricasso. This piece is a designer collectible based on authentic period dirks rather than a piece that is collected. Being Polish myself, collecting Slavic knives such as this is a physical connection to my heritage.

And finally, this is a replica of a hand-held Polynesian Cula Cula club.  The Cula Cula is a weapon that can be hand held such as this example, or be wielded with both hands. Fashioned in the design of a shark's tooth, the smaller Cula Cula is used as club and a thrusting weapon. The thin blade allows the user to cut through bone rather than shattering it. How a Cula Cula is decorated also represents the owners status. The larger two-handed versions are also used as clubs and thrusting weapons, but also serve as shields and oars. 

Hand carved and etched from hard tropical Vesi wood, this piece is ethnographic in nature because it represents the Polynesian people rather then a specific aboriginal group such as Hawaiian or Tahitian. 

Collecting Ethnographic or Aboriginal specific pieces can be very rewarding, and it can be perceived as being very high-brow and exclusive. And with good reason - one cannot help but be educated as he learns more about the piece and the people who use it. So if you want to learn more about the world and the peoples in it, consider ethnographic or aboriginal collecting. The more you find that is different, the more you find they are the same!

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Replies to This Discussion

Thanks for the advice Shlomo.

Shlomo ben Maved said:

It has the Crown over the crossed maces so it's definitely Birmingham although the maker's mark and date are long gone.

John Bamford said:

Is the Khukri marked as Birmingham Shlomo , the reason I ask is that the Khukri's issued to the Gurkha regiment today are made in Nepal . They are certainly pretty authentic judging by the video's of their production visible on You Tube.

Is it authentic sure; is it an authentic kukhri, certainly; is it an authentic Gurkha kukhri, yes but it sure as Hell isn't a genuine Nepalese Gurkha kukhri...So then is it a replica, a reproduction even though it was an issue piece?

Remember that the Gurkhas have been part of the British army for over 200 years.

There were numerous makers of kukhris in England for the Nepalese couldn't keep up production and didn't have the quality control that the DOD wanted...Then again there are so many regional variances in the design as to be staggering.

This is interesting.  I dont know I have seen a collection centered around this type collecting, outside of a museum.  Being a history nut I think I would find it fascinating though


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