The following contains graphic description and images
depicting butchering and hide work.
It’s early 2013. Not super early 2013, but definitely at least the first half. Honestly it could even be the second half of 2012. You see, goats care not for things like years.
Today started like most days. With a bunch of yammering and babbling. Then the humans wake up and walk us. But then it was different.
Mr. Goaty Goat was walked aside. One of the humans stood over him, one leg on either side of his shoulders, and lifted his head, by the horns.
And another human cut his throat.
There was a loud rush of air. Almost like a gasp. In fact it was a gasp. Mr. Goaty Goat’s wind pipe was severed along with the arteries in his neck.
In seconds, he was unconscious. In a few more, he was dead.
This is the way the lives of many goats end. This is Turkana, Kenya. And these goats are owned by the Daasanach tribe. The Daasanach are made up of eight ancestral groups that collectively call themselves the Daasanach. They are primarily pastoralists, but in the Omo River Delta, they also practice flood-retreat agriculture.
In the fertile soils left by the floods, they mostly grow sorghum, tobacco, field peas and green grams (you probably know them as Mung Beans).
The Daasanach language is interesting. If you’re reading this, there’s an excellent chance you’ve never heard it. Honestly, I can’t quite remember what it sounds like, either. I know exactly three words in Daasanach. We didn’t really have to know it though.
The Daasanach we stayed with spoke Daasanach and Swahili, and the occaisional very broken English. We spoke English, and a good bunch of us also knew some Swahili.
There were often several layers of translation.
The Daasanach language is closely related to the El Molo language. I’m reading that that language is extinct and it makes me sad. I met an El Molo man. His name was Mike. He had a deep cut on his right hand.
He approached me selling necklaces when our convoy stopped to change a tire. I had no money. He told me he was El Molo, and said they were the smallest tribe in the area. He wanted me to give him a pen so he could write his book. I wasn’t able to, because I didn’t have many and needed them for my work.
I felt bad about it, but couldn’t give him one.
He told me he was part of the smallest tribe in that region. Now I learn his ancestral language is extinct.
Goats aren’t the only animals raised by the Daasanach. They also keep donkeys, camels, cattle, and sheep. I can’t remember how many donkeys we saw, but Zach was keeping count. They weren’t as common as the goats. The goats were countless.
Mr. Goaty Goat’s hide was roughly scraped down and then dried. Probably air-dried. In Turkana, if you wash your shirt and hang it to dry mid-day, it will be dry as a bone in about 10 minutes. I can’t imagine needing or finding a more efficient way of drying a hide than just leaving it and coming back later.
It was folded up, and tied with a long reed, and there it stayed.
Until July 8, 2013, when John Mwangi got a hold of Mr. Goaty Goat after I asked him to track down some things for me to buy from the tribe as souvenirs. The day before, a man named Bull had put word out and came back with two goat hides, gave them to John, who brought them to me.
I just so happened to pick Mr. Goaty Goat, and here we are.
I paid the 1000 shillings and John had it tied up more securely, this time with twine, and placed in a Nakumat bag.
Here is a picture of my cat, Tinder, lounging among the loot the day after I got home. Behind him you can seethe plastic Nakumat bag with Mr. Goaty Goat inside.
And there it stayed. Until sometime in 2018 when I had finally taken care of enough of the past projects I habitually neglect to finally reach the 2013 projects.
The smell was the first thing. I’ve never had much of a strong sense of smell. But apparently, the smell of goats is strongly associated with my time in Kenya. And strangely, I have no pictures of them. I have pictures of giraffes, hippos, hundreds of fossils, a scorpion I found in my tent, a goat’s skeleton, and the remains of a Nile perch that had been eaten by birds. But no goats.
Except this one:
So in that picture there’s quite a bit going on. I can’t remember the name of the man all the way to the left. But I have a feeling this here dangling goat was bought from him. The next guy, in the blue bandana, is Russel Cutts.
Russ is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Georgia. He is an expert survivalist (he’s actually lived alone in the woods for months on end), an expert on ancient technologies (he has successfully hunted deer with an atlatl) and is absolutely obsessed with the discovery and production of fire in ancient humans.
He also taught me how to make fire with nothing but sticks and in under a minute. I’ve gone to him for advice on hide tanning and such. And will again in the future I’m sure.
In front of him, it’s kind of hard to tell, but I thiiiiiiink it’s the man named Bull (that’s his name translated to English. I don’t know the word for Bull in Daasanach). He’s the one John Mwangi talked to to hunt down the souvenirs I wanted to pick up.
In front of him with the blue shorts is John Mwangi. He’s an all around awesome guy and frequently on staff with the Koobi Fora Field School. Way in the back behind the dangly goat is Katie Ranhorn.
She’s a brilliant archaeologist with a research fellowship at Harvard.
The guy handling the goat is Hassich. I didn’t know him well but he helped keep the Daasanach kids from tearing apart our camp while we were away.
Obscured behind him is Zach. He’s another super smart guy but I’m 75% confident he’s part robot. You’d have to meet him.
All the way to the right is Koome. He was one of the Kenyan students who attended the school. Another super smart guy, he studied at Kenyatta University in Nairobi.
And then there’s the goat. That goat is not the subject of this blog, but he WAS part of our Fourth of July dinner. He was purchased from the tribe, and how he (and one other goat) was dispatched is how I know how Mr. Goaty Goat met his fate.
This goat however, was butchered with stone tools, whereas I’m pretty confident that Mr. Goaty Goat was butchered with metal knives.
This goat here was an anthropological exercise for the Koobi Fora students. We got to butcher our own Fourth of July dinner. With stone tools.
I have that on video but I’ll spare you. For now.
So anyway, back to 2018.
As our goat friend was airing out, I started researching different methods of tanning and softening hides. This hide wasn’t tanned. It was dried. It was like cardboard. Or…well…like hard leather. Because that’s what it was.
My job was to clean it, reconstitute it, and tan it so that it was like one of those really fancy hides you buy wherever it is that one buys hides.
Tanning is a process of treating a hide by degreasing and drying them with salts, and then tanned using tannins–acidic chemicals that work to alter the protein structure of the hides and make them more durable and less likely to rot.
Tanning gets its name from the tannins used to treat the hides.Tannins in turn take their name from the old German word for fir (and oak) trees. Know the song “Oh Tannenbaum?” Tannen–>tannin–> tanning.
There are a lot of ways to do this. You can use soaps, specialty chemical formulas, spit, urine, and brains. Also the aforementioned tree saps. Oh, and chromium but we’re not going to get that invested in the tanning process.
After asking around (meaning tagging Russell Cutts on Facebook) and doing some research, it wasn’t until I ran into my old friend Dakota, who’d also gone through the anthropology program at Rhode Island College. He, in typical Dakota fashion, was at this party adorned in a whole mess of skins that he’d collected and tanned himself, along with his fiance, who was also covered in skins.
Yes, both of these people are real.
They said they’d just bought a bottle of Hide Tanning Formula to see how it worked, and it worked really well. They’d done several skins (including those they were wearing) and still had some left over.
So I decided “hey…I don’t wanna mess this up. Maybe it wont be the best hide ever tanned, but it’ll be awesome.”
Now. This stuff isn’t too expensive. And it’s not that tricky. But there are several steps to follow over the course of about a week. And it’s important to follow them carefully or the hide wont turn out properly. As in, maybe it’ll smell like a dead animal a few days after you think you’re done.
So now I’m going to go over each of the steps and show you pictures from each. While reading, I want you to think about each step. About what you know about our ancestors and how they lived–even if you have some kind of romanticized view from watching gum-recedingly stupid movies like 10,000 BC or just thinking of Native Americans as “Noble Savages” or other such scientifically-justified racism.
Keep in mind that hide tanning was invented/discovered over a long process of sometimes arbitrary trial and error over the course of many thousands of years.
I went on amazon.com and ordered this stuff. This is a 21st century version of a very, very old process.
Step 1: Clean meat and fat off skin (done by our Daasanach friends). If the hide has been dried (yup.) soak in water just long enough to soften.
This one was really intimidating. How long is just long enough? What if I ruin it? What if some of it is soft and some is still stiff?
This wasn’t an issue. It took a good few hours to get this thing approaching supple.
Step 2: To tan hair-on, salt flesh-side well using regular table salt. Work it in generously and don’t be shy at all. This is a little bit creepy to do so no, it isn’t you.
After this, for the end of step 2, you fold the skin flesh side in, and roll that baby up for 24 hours. Seriously everyone. Plan this around your schedule for the day or you might be up late. Then once it sits for a day, scrape off aaaaalllllll the old salt and repeat the process again.
Step 4 (skipped 3 because that has to do with removing the hair): Soak skin in 1lb of salt water per gallon of water until very flexible and then remove to drain.
I can’t remember how much I used but it wound up being like 3 lbs of salt or something. It was a lot.
Not much to see for this step. It was pretty much like step one only I let him soak overnight and then woke up a bit early for work the next morning and plopped him on the upturned cooler in the bath tub.
I didn’t mention this before but please check with your partner before doing this!
Step 5: Using a sharp knife, thin skin as much as possible, removing any remaining membrane.
This. This step is where things start to get real. This is where you’re gonna get to know your hide real, reeeeeeal well. And you’ll also make final decisions about whether you ever want to do this again.
I started with a goat. They’re pretty large. My next is going to be something smaller. Like a rabbit.
But again, keep in mind that this was done with sharp stones. I had the benefit of using a low-end straight razor I bought off ebay. It was still a workout. Like. I felt it in the morning.
Step 6: Wash the hide in warm water with dish soap until all the soap and oils and nasty bits are gone. I had to do this several times because of how friggin’ dirty this goat was. It reminded me of how dirty I was when I got back from Kenya.
Step 7: When the skin is semi-dry but still moist and flexible (you’ll know the difference…when I hung it, to dry in step 6, it felt…like a dead animal), shake hide tanning formula well and at a warm room temperature, massage it into the hide. Use a brush or gloves. Massage it well. Do not be shy. Or you’ll have to redo this step and it’s a little creepy.
Really just go to town here. I think it’s fairly self-explanatory, but as you treat it, you’ll see the color darken a bit. Blow up the images if you wanna see the difference.
Step 8: Lay the skin flesh side up on cardboard or plywood to dry. As it dries, periodically pull and stretch the skin until completely soft (again, don’t be shy, and dampen with warm water and reapply the hide tanning stuff if it’s too stiff for you).
Click these to see the larger images, but you can see the progress of it drying. Notice the white patches growing. In the image on the right, it’s completely dry.
Have you been thinking about the mental and physical processes involved here?
This is kind of a complicated process. It’s…sort of specific. Mess it up and you’ve got a carboard sheet that looks like a hunk of skin. Or it just rots and smells awful and you’ve got no clothing or blanket or whatever, and maybe you even get sick. Neandertals had hides and we have a habit of thinking they’re stupid.
This is an incredibly intelligent process. It uses materials sourced from multiple locations used at critical times over a long span of time. Mr. Goaty Goat was dried five years ago, enabling me to soften and tan him as far into the future as needed. The people that came up with this process were not primitive. They were ancient, but in a very real sense they were modern humans. They were us, and these processes connect us, as does all tool use.
Later this year I’m going to be repeating this process, albeit with a less tough hide to work with, but using stone tools and perhaps a less modern tanning method. I’ll keep you posted on that as it develops.