Leather Processing, In The Beginning
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Recently at a Renaissance fair, a discussion of leather was brought about by the various ways it was utilized. Curious about how far back in history the use of leather was found, it was surprising what I discovered. The earliest recorded find and how the processing of leather has improved. But the most interesting fact was that primitive societies on different continents all learned leather processing techniques independently of each other. And that some of the ancient techniques of processing leather are still used today.

Archaeologist have found that Neanderthal man used the hide from the animals they hunted, as well as everything else. This fur and hide was, hopefully, scrapped clean and allowed to dry. This type of rawhide was very simplistically processed for clothing. And, therefore, became brittle, stiff and, eventually, rotted. Scientist say at some point, man or woman, figured out that rubbing fat onto the hide helped create a more flexible and water resistant material. Which is probably the first leather preservation process invented. Early uses for leather were clothing and tools, but the nomadic tribes used larger hides for shelters. It is theorized that the fires used inside these shelters, for warmth and cooking, created smoke which absorbed into the hide aiding in its longevity. Probably accidental but when burning green leaves and branches the smoke created a vapor with a substance which later became formaldehyde tanning or smoking. A natural process, believe originate with the Hebrews, is bark extract. Bark extract became vegetable tanning and is still applied to certain types of leathers. Known in ancient times but unclear when discovered to work was preservation by dehydrating using alum, a type of salt which is a natural mineral found widely in nature and particularly near volcanoes. Interestingly, a tannery was uncovered among the ruins of Pompeii with similar equipment used centuries after it was found.

With burial sites, paintings, and ancient written documents scientist have determined that these methods were used to process and preserve leather from prehistoric times and throughout history. But the most fascinating fact is that the use of leather, processing and preserving, by primitive societies was happening in Europe, Asia and North America independently of one another. Pieces of leather, dating back to 1300BC, have been found in Egypt. As mentioned in Homers Iliad, the Greeks were using leather about 1200BC. This use of leather then spread throughout the Roman Empire. Ancient art painted with leather brushes originated in China, along with some harness designs and Chinese leather currency in the second century BC. Native Americans were using leather long before Christopher Columbus arrived. With these few examples of just this one subject, it makes you wonder what else could be similar accross the world.

Science shows that mankind has, obviously, processed hides into leather for a long, long, long time. And done in separate societies by various methods independently. Although preservation has improved from rubbing in the fat, smoking, bark extract and alum, to modern day chemicals the process remains the same. But the finished product is so much more!


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