The primitive man hunted wild animals for food. He removed the hides and skins form the dead animal carcass and used them as crude tents, clothing, footwear, and bedding.
The earliest record of the use of leather dates from the Paleolithic period. Cave paintings discoverd near Lerida in Spain depict the use of leather clothing.
Excavation of Paleolithic sites has yielded bone tools used for scraping hides and skins to remove hair. These scraped skins rapidly putrfied and became useless, so a method of preservation was needed.
The earliest method was to stretch out the hides and skins on the ground to dry, rubbing them with fats and animal brains while they dried. This had a limited preserving and softening action. Primitve man discovered also that the smoke of wood fires could preserve hides and skins, as did treating them with and infusion of tannin-containing barks, leaves, twigs, and fruits of certain trees and plants. It seems likely that man first discovered how to preserve leather when he found that animal skins left lying on a wet forest floor became tanned naturally by chemicals released by decaying leaves and vegetation.
Fat tanning is the oldest method of waterproofing skins and turning them into leather. Ancient Assyrian texts, as well as Homer’s Iliad, mention this method. Ancients would rub ainmal fat into the skins, stretching them to help the fat incorprate into the hide. The resulting leather resisted moisture and rot because, as we all know, oil and water do not mix.
Brain Tanning is another common method of turning skins or hides into water-resistant leather. Used by ancient Native Americans, brain tanning involves soaking cleaned skins in a mixture of water and the animal’s own brains. Though this may seem disgusting, brains conain both emulsifying fats and softening agents that help preserve the finished leather.
Smoking was another common method ancient peoples used to tan and waterproof leather. Most likely discovered by accident, hides were exposed to smoke, a preservative and drying agent. This helped protect the finish product against moisture and rot. Often used in conjunction with methods like brain tanning, smoking wasn’t absolutely necessary but did give the hides additional softness and an appealing brown color.
All of these methods did improve the natural leather’s ability to withstand wear and limited exposure to moisture. it even gave a small layer of protection against UV damage. It did not, however, provide any redustion in flammability. In fact, it probably made it burn faster!