How Did Hunter Gatherers Tan Hides?

This ancient tanning method used by hunter-gatherers offers a fascinating glimpse into the resourcefulness and ingenuity of early humans. By carefully removing the layer of fat from the hide and applying a unique concoction of animal brain, liver, fat, and salt, these individuals were able to transform raw animal hides into durable and versatile material. The preservation of such leather garments discovered in Greenland not only showcases the remarkable skills of hunter-gatherers but also provides valuable insight into their way of life and the techniques they developed in order to survive and thrive in challenging environments. Understanding how hunter-gatherers tanned hides sheds light on their resource management, craftsmanship, and their deep understanding of the natural world.

What Was a Tanner in Medieval Times?

In medieval times, a tanner was a skilled professional who played a vital role in the leather industry. They were responsible for transforming raw animal skins or hides into leather, a valuable material used for various purposes. Positioned between hunters and butchers, who supplied the skins, and leatherworkers, who crafted the final products, tanners acted as intermediaries in the production process.

The process of tanning involved several steps to convert the perishable raw hides into durable and usable leather. Initially, the tanner would scrape off any remaining flesh, fat, and hair from the animal skin. This was done to prepare the hide for tanning, ensuring it wouldn’t decompose and retain it’s natural elasticity and strength.

In addition to their technical skills, tanners also needed to possess a keen understanding of the different properties of various animal hides and the tanning process. They’d to carefully select the right tanning agent based on the intended use of the leather. Furthermore, they’d to prioritize hygiene and make sure to work in well-ventilated areas to reduce the risks of contamination and unpleasant odors.

The Different Types of Leather Products Produced by Tanners and Their Uses

  • Handbags
  • Wallets
  • Belts
  • Shoes
  • Jackets
  • Gloves
  • Watch straps
  • Keychains
  • Book covers
  • Leather-bound journals
  • Leather accessories

During medieval times, tanning hides involved a meticulous process that combined various natural ingredients with skilled craftsmanship. The removal of fat from the hide’s surface would be followed by the application of a unique concoction comprising animal brain, liver, fat, and salt. Sewn together into rounded tents using bone or horn needles, the hides would undergo smoking over an open fire, enveloping them with the phenol-infused smoke that facilitated the vital tanning process.

How Were Hides Tanned in Medieval Times?

In medieval times, the process of tanning hides required a meticulous series of steps. The initial stage involved removing the layer of fat from the hide. This was achieved by carefully applying a layer of clay to absorb the fat, which could then be scraped away. Once the fat was removed, the hide was ready for the tanning process.

To tan the hides, a mixture consisting of animal brain, liver, fat, and salt was prepared. This concoction served as a tanning agent, helping to preserve the hides and prevent them from decaying. The mixture was meticulously spread over the hide, ensuring every inch was covered.

Next, the treated hides were sewn together using needles crafted from bone or horn. These needles allowed the hides to be fashioned into round tents, which were durable and provided shelter for hunters and gatherers. Once sewn together, the hides underwent another crucial step in the tanning process.

The hides were then subjected to smoking over an open fire. This step served a dual purpose. Firstly, the smoke acted as a natural preservative, preventing decay and extending the lifespan of the hide. Secondly, the smoke contained phenol, an active tanning ingredient present in the wood used for the fire. Phenol played a vital role in transforming the hides into stable, durable material through the tanning process.

Through these methods, medieval hunters and gatherers were able to produce tanned hides that provided valuable resources for their communities. The process required time, skill, and careful attention to detail, ensuring that the hides could withstand the tests of time and serve a myriad of purposes, from clothing and shelter to various tools and implements.

Tools and Equipment Used in the Tanning Process

During ancient times, hunter-gatherers had techniques for tanning animal hides to transform them into durable and usable materials. They used various tools and equipment for this process. One essential tool was a scraping tool, typically made from stone or bone, which was used to remove the flesh and fat from the hide. The hide would then be soaked in water to remove any remaining debris.

Another crucial tool used in the tanning process was a tanning agent. Hunter-gatherers would often rely on natural substances found in their environment, such as tree bark or animal brains, as tanning agents. These agents contain tannins or oils that help preserve the hide and prevent it from decomposing.

Once the hide was prepared, hunter-gatherers would stretch it on a frame or rack to prevent it from shrinking during the drying process. This stretching ensured that the hide maintained it’s shape and size. In some cases, the hide would be pegged to the ground or secured with rocks to achieve the desired tension.

Throughout the tanning process, hunter-gatherers would often use their hands or primitive tools, such as bone needles or sinew, to sew the hides together. Sewing enabled them to create various items, including clothing, footwear, and shelter.

While the tools and equipment used by ancient hunter-gatherers may seem rudimentary compared to modern methods, their resourcefulness and ingenuity allowed them to effectively tan and utilize animal hides for their survival and everyday needs.

Source: The History of Leather Tanning – Maharam

Early humans discovered various techniques for tanning hides, including the use of fats, oils, tannin-rich tree bark, and even alum. One of the earliest and most primitive methods involved a combination of tanning with fats and oils, accompanied by the smoky essence emanating from a wood fire. This approach to leather tanning is believed to have been among the first practices utilized by our ancestors.

How Did Early Humans Tan Hides?

The tanning of hides by early humans is a fascinating aspect of our history. Before the advent of modern techniques, ancient civilizations discovered various methods to tan hides and transform them into durable leather. One of the earliest methods involved tanning with fats and oils, combined with the use of smoke from a wood fire. This provided a suitable environment for the tanning process to take place.

In addition to fats and oils, tree bark high in tannins played a crucial role in the tanning of leather. These tannins, found in certain types of tree bark, have the ability to bind to the collagen fibers in animal hides, transforming them into a more stable material. Early humans would have crushed and soaked this bark in water to extract the tannins, creating a solution that could be used for tanning.

The extracted tannin solution would be applied to the prepared hide, which was typically cleaned and partially degreased. This allowed the tannins to penetrate the fibers and bind them together, resulting in a stronger and more durable material.

Another method employed by early humans involved the use of alum, a compound with a high concentration of aluminum. Alum tanning required the hide to be soaked in a solution containing alum crystals, salt, and water. This process caused the collagen fibers to shrink and become more resistant to decomposition. However, this method was not as widely used as tanning with fats, oils, and bark.

By utilizing fats and oils, tree bark rich in tannins, and even alum, these resourceful individuals were able to transform animal hides into durable and versatile leather, providing essential materials for their daily lives. Through their ingenuity, they ensured the preservation and utilization of valuable resources for clothing, shelter, and other essential needs.

The Cultural and Symbolic Significance of Tanned Hides in Early Human Societies

  • The use of tanned hides in early human societies
  • Symbolic meanings attached to tanned hides
  • The significance of tanned hides in cultural practices
  • Trade and economic importance of tanned hides
  • Relationship between tanned hides and spiritual beliefs
  • Decorative and artistic use of tanned hides
  • Rituals and ceremonies involving tanned hides
  • The craftsmanship and skills required for tanning hides
  • Tanned hides as a means of personal and communal identity
  • Preservation and conservation of tanned hides in museums
  • Interdisciplinary studies on tanned hides in archaeology and anthropology

Once the hide is sufficiently soaked, it undergoes a process known as fleshing, where any remaining flesh and fat is manually scraped off. This is followed by another round of soaking, known as liming, which helps to further loosen any remaining hair and unwanted substances. After liming, the hide is de-haired using a process called bating, which involves the application of enzymes to break down the hair follicles. Once the hide is free from hair, it’s then ready for the actual tanning process.

How Are Hides Prepared for Tanning?

Once the hide is adequately soaked, it’s stretched out and scraped to remove any remaining hair and flesh. This scraping process is essential for achieving a smooth surface on the hide. The scraping tools used by hunter-gatherers would vary depending on their available resources, but they typically included sharp stones, bone scrapers, or shells.

After the initial scraping, the hide is ready for tanning. Hunter-gatherers often employed natural tannins found in their surroundings to tan the hides. These tannins can be extracted from various plant materials such as barks, leaves, and roots. The tannin-rich materials are boiled or steeped in water to create a tanning solution.

Once the tanning solution is prepared, the hide is immersed into it and left to soak for a significant period of time. This soaking process allows the tannins to bind to the collagen fibers in the hide, gradually transforming it into durable leather. The length of time required for tanning varies depending on factors such as the animal species, hide thickness, and desired quality of the final product.

During the tanning process, the hide is often agitated or stirred periodically to ensure even absorption of the tannins. This step helps in achieving a consistent and thorough tanning.

The leather is then removed from the tanning solution and carefully rinsed to remove any excess tannins or impurities. Finally, the leather is left to dry and then can be further processed or used directly for various purposes, such as clothing, footwear, or shelter construction, by hunter-gatherer communities.


It’s evident that these early societies possessed a deep understanding of the natural resources available to them and were adept at utilizing various organic materials to produce durable leather. Studying these traditional techniques not only sheds light on our ancestors' ways of life but also offers valuable knowledge and potential inspiration for sustainable and environmentally friendly practices in the present.

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