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Curiosity Corner: Using the brain
February 26, 2016 Gretchen Deter   

Read more by Gretchen Deter
Last summer I took a little trip up to the Hudson-Meng Bison Bone bed, located just north of Crawford, Nebraska. It is a fascinating journey into the history of the Paleo-Indian culture. I was amazed at the amount of work done on the bison bone bed and all of the archeological theories swirling around that history. Our guide was a charming young Forest Service employee who was very well versed in the Hudson-Meng site.

As we were listening to him and wandering around the bone bed, there was something that he said which really struck me as odd. We were looking over the side of the rail, amazed at the hundreds and hundreds of bones, and he asked us if we noticed anything unusual. I looked again and saw nothing but more bones. I walked again around the dig and tried to figure out what he was talking about but, alas, I still found nothing that I would consider “unusual.” Of course, I am not an archaeologist in the professional sense. Maybe not even in any sense but I have studied the subject and have a keen interest in the topic.

“Okay, I give up. What is so unusual about the bone bed?” He wanted us to count the skulls that we could see. Then I got the clue. There were over 120 bison skeletons, with a few missing parts, but I counted only six recognizable bison skulls. Now that really struck me as odd. Why would there be so many missing skulls from such a huge bone bed?

Our intelligent young guide explained that this is still a mystery with several very different theories that may or may not be based on sound science. He explained a number of theories as to what happened to the skulls and all seemed quite logical. However, one of them stuck in my brain and I am still sorting out the possibilities.

This theory presented the possibility that early, and I mean very early, Paleo-Indians removed the heads of the bison and took them to a different site, near a stream, where the women worked on tanning the hides. He explained that the native Indians used bison brains to tan the hides. I thought: “Yuck – bison brains – to tan hides, who ever thought of that???” Then he showed us a bison hide that had been tanned with brains and one that had not. I couldn’t believe how soft the hide was that they tanned with brains. Since then, the idea rumbled around in my head for several months until I decided to do some research to see if brains really were used for tanning.

What I found was very interesting. Not only have they used brains to tan hides for thousands of years but tanners are still using brains. I read an article by Marcus Klek which explained the process of “braining” a hide. Today, they order frozen brains on-line. The tanners mix them with water and put them in a blender. This seems to work well for contemporary tanners but I tried to visualize how a native Indian woman would use brain tanning on a bison hide.

I found out it was very hard work and one woman normally was able to tan about 10 hides in a season. First, they had to get a hide, preferably a young bison cow. The men went out on hunts and brought the hide home and then the women took over. They had to soak it, rack it, flesh it, thin it, scrape it, and then tan it. (Believe me, this explanation is very over-simplified).

When they got to the “braining” part, the women would carefully cut the skull down the middle between the eyes and extract the brain. They would mix it with water and possibly some liver. They would then squish it in a bag until it was about the consistency of a “slurpee.” Usually their recipes called for one brain per bison hide.

Throughout this tanning process, the women needed to be near a stream or some source of water because the process requires several washings. The tanners would spread the brain mixture over the hairless side of the hide and fold it to the inside, knead it and keep it moist for a day then wash it in the stream. This braining took at least three applications before all could be scraped clean resulting in a soft and beautiful hide that could be used for clothing, bedding, lodging, or ceremonial rites. Many were beautifully decorated and the women took great pride in their works of art.

Many hides tell the stories about so many parts of the Indian culture. They tell stories and teach lessons. I believe that we all enjoy such art and its mysteries. Brain tanning is also an art in itself and, thankfully, it is not a lost art. To me it is a curious art and I hope it is for the reader.
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