Every animal has just enough brains to tan its hide

I’ll bet you didn’t know that. I didn’t either. I’ve been reading about Plains Indians, and more specifically, about Indian abductions of white settlers in the early- to mid-1800s.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that. I didn’t either. I’ve been reading about Plains Indians, and more specifically, about Indian abductions of white settlers in the early- to mid-1800s.

According to a book I just finished, “Empire of the Summer Moon” by S.C. Gwynne, it turns out that one of the main sources of wealth in certain tribes, such as the Comanche, was buffalo. Buffalo hides and robes were valuable trading commodities. In the Comanche tradition, men shot the buffalo and women – more specifically, the man’s wives – did everything else to it, including tanning the hides. The more wives a man had, the more hides could get processed, and the more things he could trade for. Gwynne argues that this is one of the reasons raiders took women hostage.

Tanning is something I thought I understood generally. But when Gwynne wrote about using buffalo brains to tan hides, I realized I knew less than I thought I thought I did. So, I looked it up.

Tanning is what converts a hide to leather and what makes it stay pliable. To grease up the skin’s collagen proteins you need a tanning agent, or tannin. An animal’s brain contains lecithin which, it turns out, is a natural tanning agent. Happily, most animals seem to have the right amount of brains to supply enough lecithin to tan its hide. All you do is pull the brain out, mix it in hot water, and rub it all over the hide. You can read more about it here, and here.

There are other method of tanning, including vegetarian (tree bark) and chemical options. Braining is the Native American method.

All of which makes me wonder . . . is there enough lecithin in a human brain to tan a human hide? It just seems to me that someone would have used that in a horror story by now. (It would minimize Hannibal Lecter’s cleanup.) Maybe someone has. I tend not to read that kind of novel, so I wouldn’t know.

Correction: That was Buffalo Bill, whom Hannibal Lecter was helping Clarice Starling catch, right?

2 comments

That is fascinating. Thanks.

Scott Alumbaugh

I know, but kind of weird, huh? On hunting sites they talk very casually about taking the brain out of the animal you killed, warming it in a pot with water, then rubbing it into the skin, as if working with brains is a completely normal thing.

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