History of Leather
Leather is elegant and sensual, luxurious and timeless—literally timeless: “without beginning or end.” Surely there was a beginning, but it was so far back into prehistory that it’s impossible to date. Silk originated in 3,000 BCE, cotton in 5,000 BCE, wool in 10,000 BCE. All “new kids on the block” compared to leather. Animal skins were used for protection from the elements at least 200,000 years, 300,000 years (likely two or three million years ago).
Our early ancestors were hunters and gatherers, subsisting on animals and fish and berries, fruit, leaves and insects. They wasted nothing of their limited resources. After they ate the meat of their prey, they used the teeth and bones to fashion tools and weapons and the hair for thread. All that was left was the skin.
They didn’t have Facebook, Twitter or camera phones to record their every move every day, as we do now. There are no records that document when those hides were first put to use. But we can imagine how it went.
It’s a cold night and there lies the skin. Surely those early humans would pull it over themselves to keep warm or they would throw it over a tree branch and have a tent. They were nomads; after depleting the resources in one area, they roamed the land to find another that would sustain them. They would have taken the skins with them,wrapping them around themselves on their journey, and there were the first coats. They walked over rough terrain, through brambles, over sharp stones. They would have used the skins to protect their feet, and there were the first shoes.
The problem was that the hides got stiff in the cold and rotted in the heat. They had to keep replenishing their meager supply. Maybe they thought, “If we could only keep the hide soft.” Or, “What can we do so that the hide lasts longer and doesn’t smell from decay?” Not exactly like that. Not in English. In whatever linguistic communication they used. There is no doubt they did communicate—that’s what allowed them to work together to survive.
So let’s say that one day the hide is left in water where there are leaves and bark from trees, and the hide softened up and lasted longer. They wouldn’t have known why—because those leaves and bark contained tannin or tannic acid. Or let’s suppose that our ancient ancestors noticed that if they stretched out the hide and let it dry in the sun, it was stiff but it lasted longer. And let’s suppose that they figured out if they rubbed something oily on the hide, it would soften. It doesn’t matter that they didn’t understand why this was happening; it only matters that, also unknown to them, they had invented leather.
If you think we are really pushing the envelope with our imaginations, recall that these people, often depicted as savages, had figured out how to harness fire, cook meat and fashion tools and weapons from bones and stones hundreds of thousands of years before. Why wouldn’t they figure out how best to use the hides?
Tanning hides is among the earliest of human activities. The methods gradually became more refined and more efficient. The basic idea of tanning as used in the ancient world remains the same today. How many activities from 200,000 years ago can we say that about?
Then the time came when we no longer have to imagine. Written records, paintings and artifacts unearthed from ancient graves document the widespread use of leather. Ten thousand years ago seems a bit more recent when we compare it to the two-three million years that humans roamed. It was quite extraordinary that, at that time, after those millions of years hunting and gathering, humans settled down into communities, usually along a river for irrigation and transportation. It is, truly, the single most significant development in human history that they learned how to grow their own food and domesticate animals. They then had a constant supply of hides and used leather for more and more items. We have countless examples from circa 5,000 BCE to 3,000 BCE.
In Mesopotamia, the Sumerian women wore leather dresses; some wore leather crowns as symbols of their station. The Assyrians invented the leather jackboot that was knee-high with thick leather soles. Thin iron plates were placed inside to protect the shins. The Assyrian armies could fight on rough terrain and in bitter cold, rain and snow. Their enemies, hobbling around in their open sandals, were no match for them. The Assyrians, the same as many other cultures, used leather pouches to carry water and keep it cool and fresh.
Egypt was a highly evolved civilization and exceptionally skilled in leather making. They introduced leather made with tannin from the mimosa tree (also called the Persian silk tree). They also used animal brains to tan the hides. From the paintings and artifacts in the excavated tombs, we see that the Egyptians made leather sandals, belts, bags, shields, harnesses, cushions, and shrouds for the dead. They had so much leather so well made that they used it as a valued trade commodity.
In China, ancient nomads wore boots made from the hides of yak, roe deer and fish. A 4000-year-old mummified woman was found with leather shoes made from sheep hide, the lower and upper parts sewn together with leather threads. The Chinese used egg yolks to tan their hides, possibly a unique technique at that time.
“Otzi, the Ice Man” was found in the Alp Mountains on the border of Italy. He had died 5,300 years ago, tricked out in leather: coat, belt, leggings, loincloth, and shoes, some from sheepskin, some from goatskin.
In Europe, one of the first great civilizations was the Cucuteni–Trypillia culture that included what today is Ukraine. They built sophisticated, organized and agriculturally advanced settlements. Found at the Cucuteni-Trypillian sites were artifacts such as clubs, harpoons, spear made from an assortment of materials, including leather. Also found in Ukraine were stone tools from 40,000 BCE that had traces of organic materials from scraping animal skins clean to be used for clothing and shelter.
Somewhat later, from circa 800 BCE to 500 BCE, the Ancient Greek and Roman empires both took credit for developing and recording a consistent recipe for tanning materials and more effective techniques. They used bark from sumach, oak and pine trees, which continued to be the sources for tanning compounds in Europe until chemical processes were developed in the nineteenth century. The Greeks and Romans used the skins of sheep, goats, hyenas, deer, wolves, bears, seals, leopards and lions to make clothes, shoes, shields, saddles and harnesses. When their armies entered battle, they were decked out in leather armor and capes.
On the other side of the world, across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the use of hides followed the same pattern. There was not a culture in the world that did not learn to use hides and make leather. It’s possible that each culture developed the ideas and methods independently. They were all hunters and gatherers. They all had hides left over after they ate the meat. They all needed to be warm and protected. Or, not outside the realm of possibility, they had contact with each other at some time in all those hundreds of thousands of years that bands of nomads roamed the earth. Plus it’s likely that the continents were closer back then or even connected.
Nomads from Siberia walked across the Bering Strait bridge to Alaska from 60,000 to 12,000 years ago. Mongols sailed to Alaska more than 20,000 ago. Whether they brought leather-making techniques with them or learned it later, they had leather as they made their way across the continent and down to South America.
Excavations have unearthed both raw and tanned hides that were used for clothing, tents, blankets, snow shoes, storage containers and rope. The hides were from deer, bison and buffalo. In the northernmost regions of what is now North America, people called the Aleuts made leather from caribou and seals.
They tanned leather with brain tissue cooked in water. Brain has a high fat and oil content that makes leather soft, flexible and water resistant. They would rub the paste into the raw hide, rinse it out, then stretch and knead the hide until it was soft. They also used a solution of hemlock and oak bark and water.
These peoples contributed at least two innovations to leather items: moccasins and fringes. Moccasins were exceptionally comfortable and durable as the nomads trudged across rugged terrain. Fringes were made from surplus leather that was cut into narrow strips, sometimes twisted or plaited, and sewn onto garments. They were more than decorative. They also had a very clever practical use. The fringes repelled rain water. The rain would make the fringes move, which made the water run down to the tips of the fringes and off the garment. The wearer stayed drier, and the garment dried faster when the rain was over.
We started off by imagining how those very early humans discovered leather. What we can’t imagine is what they would have done without it. No way to stay warm and dry. No protection for their feet. No container for the water they needed to live. How much more difficult it would have been for them to survive.
Leather has accompanied humans on their journey through millions of years. It is impossible to think of where we would be had it not been there with us as wandering bands became agricultural communities, and those communities grew into great civilizations.