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How old is Leatherworking?

Posted by Fallon Foster on

I have about a dozen books on differing aspects of leatherworking.  I have books on braiding, tooling techniques, tooling styles, stitching, etc but aside from the material each and every one of these books shares something in common.  They all have a paragraph or three near the start of the book describing leatherworking as humanity's oldest craft.  They usually paint the picture of the hypothetical "caveman" stitching together animal hides as the earliest instances of the craft, long before we as a species were forging metals or making bows.

Based on our modern concept of anthropology this statement, that leathercraft is humanity's oldest craft, seems a bit debatable.  For one thing, the concept of the caveman slouching in his cave all his life long, whacking mates over the head with a club and carrying on like a primitive college student is a bit outdated.  Early humans did sometimes live in caves, but it doesn't seem that they did so permanently.  All of which led me to wonder if this wasn't just a common marketing trope for leatherworking books.  Or could there be evidence suggesting that leatherworking was humanity's original craft?  Just how old is leatherworking anyway?

The usual given example of primitive leatherworking is the fashioning of clothing from animal hides.  These hides would have had to have been removed from the carcass, preserved in some manner (probably scraped with a tool and sun dried), and then cut and sewn together to form clothes.  Unfortunately materials like this don't tend to last for thousands of years so we don't have many, if any, specimens for direct study or evidence.  But these crafts still required tools, and perhaps those would last a bit longer.  The oldest reference I could find, for say, a needle was about 62,000 years ago.  Weaving doesn't seem to have been invented until about 12,000 years ago so it seems reasonable to expect that these ancient needles were used mostly on hides.

A pretty interesting study released by the University of Florida analyzed lice to learn more about our history.  They concluded that homo sapiens probably began wearing clothes around 170,000 years ago.  This corresponded with a period of global cooling and with homo sapiens migrating into colder climes.  It makes sense that as a mostly hairless, bipedal ape was more regularly exposed to adverse environmental conditions, clothing would give them an advantage in survival and reproduction.

But before that, was homo sapiens just wandering about naked everywhere?  Possibly, but homo sapiens as a distinct species is only 200,000 years old.  And it didn't just spring fully formed from the ground, ready to start forming tools and hurling spears.  There were at least a dozen species of homo that populated the Earth long before homo sapiens began walking around.  We can't study them via their parasites because those parasites died out with them, but we can study their tools.

Homo erectus is the oldest species of the homo genus, at least according to the Smithsonian, and these days that classification includes some previously discovered subspecies like homo ergaster, whose name means "Handy Man".  Homo erectus lived about 2 million to 174,000 years ago and was probably the first of our ancestors to migrate out of Africa and into Asia.  They're generally known for being the first to be bipedal, routinely use fire, and fashion their own tools.  The oldest of these tools are classified as Oldawan, or "Mode 1" if you're feeling less fun, and include a variety of tools with eminently practical names like chopper and scraper.  This category also includes primitive stone awls.  And microscopic studies of the tools has shown that they were indeed used to work animal hides (and wood).  If you were to distil the tools I use today down to the very basic fundamentals, there are direct corollaries in these Oldawan era tools.  The description of "discoid" tools certainly sounds a lot like a head knife to me.

A needle is noticeably absent from this list but even if these hides aren't being stitched together, at least in the classical sense, I would still argue that this is leatherworking.  You may not be tooling, tanning (a process that seems to have been invented by the Egyptians in 1300BCE), or stitching the item but the leather still has to be processed and worked to be turned into a usable material.  And the thought that leatherworking itself might be older than our species is an interesting and humbling one.

But it may go even farther than that.  An excavation in Bouri, Ethopia is turning up stone tools that date back to 2.5 million years ago.  That would be 500,000 years before the homo genus seems to have developed.  The species that seems to be associated with these tools is Australopithecus garhi, a species that predates homo erectus by at least 500,000 years.  If humanity is defined as referring specifically to "Man", then the classification system tells us that australopithecus predates humanity.  It's more a semantic point than a practical one but it seems likely that these earliest tools were used for working leather more than anything else.  If that's the case then leatherworking could indeed predate humanity itself.

Would that then make it the oldest craft?  I would say probably not.  Fingers and teeth are probably poor substitutes for a knife or awl. So you would need tools to work the raw hides even if they were fashioned from a pebble.  Before you could develop leatherworking you would need stoneworking to make the tools necessary to process and manipulate the hides.  But the development of leatherworking would have been a technological revolution on the same scale as the industrial in terms of what it enabled.  Now you could bind sticks together with rawhide (which seems to have been common practice before nails).  You could form containers for food and water, allowing you to range farther and store them for longer.  You could construct better shelters to shield against the elements.  And, not by any means the least, you could begin make clothing. 

In the RTS terms of my generation, Leatherworking is the second tier tech that needs to be unlocked before you can get to woodworking and exploring and way before agriculture and writing.  It's so basic and fundamental that it's easy to take for granted and it's hard to visualize these time scales.  So in case this wall of text was tl;dr I'll try to condense it down into an XKCD style graph.

Timeline of the development of crafting disciplines