Our early human ancestor, the Australopithecines, stood at 3-4 feet tall, trudging the savannahs of central/east Africa surrounded by much bigger and badder predators. They were pathetically naked/hairless in comparison with other animals and not necessarily impressive in strength or speed. Their children were sometimes snatched up to serve as eagle food and adults could be easily overwhelmed by sleek feline assassins like leopards, lions, and the rest. How is it then that this little creature managed to follow an evolutionary tract that saw it at the top of the food chain, with so many of its descendants populating the earth and fundamentally changing it?
Well, what our petite ancestors lacked in physiology, they surpassed in intelligence and ingenuity. By observing successful trends in nature - how the thick fur of the wolf and the hare protects them from the cold, how sea lion and walrus skins were waterproof to allow these marine mammals to swim - early man could steal these skills through clothing. As such, humans were able to set foot on chilly grounds they would not have ordinarily survived, braving the cold armed only with technology and determination.
Shamanism & a reverence for nature
Thievery comes with a set of ethical issues, of course, and making clothes from hunted animals may feel cruel to many of us today who are so far removed from the practice, but what is perhaps not so well understood is that mimicry of animals in traditional hunter-gatherer clothing was substantiated by a reverence of nature. Many past and present hunter-gatherer societies have a shamanic belief system that appreciates the delicate balance of nature and the majesty of the animals that inhabit it. Some shamans (the religious practitioners that may be more comparable with priests in monotheistic religions) would dress as half-human, half-animal creatures (therianthropes), therefore embodying the very sense of divine harmony with nature. Even ancient rock paintings on cave walls have depicted this worship. Take the following ancient Sammi song that reflects this understanding of a cyclical nature of life and nature:
The sun is a circle
The earth is a circle
The moon is a circle
The drum is a circle
We are a circle
To our ancestors and so many cultures today, animals provided food, warmth, and light in fuel. This sustained them, and no part of an animal would be left unused if possible. Plus, as clothes were made using natural products, they would be biodegradable, which is more than can be said for some of our synthetic blends today.
Folklore and mythology of animal skins
Adorning skins to take on an animal’s qualities is not an uncommon motif in stories, especially in traditional folklore as heard in the Norse/Celtic mythology of selkies. I also enjoyed listening to a Mayan tale called ‘The Coyote Theodora’ whereby a woman shapeshifts into a coyote when she puts on her coyote pelt. In this way, wearing animal skins can be seen as gaining superpowers, going above and beyond human capabilities. With that in mind, I created a mini-story influenced heavily by Aleut culture with elements of selkie narratives to explore the very real potentials that animals and their skins could provide humans.
The bone needle weaves in and out of the new hide, following, as you imagine, the rhythm of your husband’s oars. Pausing your fine work, you listen. The sound of crashing waves percolates firmly in your mind and you gently close your eyes as you remember the dream you had last night…
... With your sea lion cloak tucked under your arm, you crept out of your house. It was daylight still, but you weren’t worried about getting caught, and your husband was fast asleep. You stepped through the snow, observing the formations you left behind as you approached the shoreline. Next to you, the baidarkas lay, overturned so as not to drift away. It is taboo for you, a woman to touch them now you have completed their construction, but that was okay. You wouldn’t need them anyway.
You unfurled the sea lion cloak from under your arm and wrapped yourself in it, feeling the cloth stretch and mould to your body, becoming a second skin. The transformation took hold as your belly lowered to touch the floor, your spine curving back. Looking at the ground again, you saw how the human footprints ended and were replaced suddenly with streaks across the floor where you wrestled with your new body.
You slunk towards the waves, dragging the substantially heavier frame to meet the frigid sea. Once you were submerged, the novel anatomy made sense, and in the weightless freedom you gave chase to the school of fish. Humongous cods that could sustain your family for the winter proved too irresistible to pass up, so, with a flick of your flippers, you sped off in their pursuit. Twists and turns drove you high and low, the adrenaline euphoric and enthralling. Eventually one was unlucky enough to not turn at the right chance, and your teeth didn’t hesitate to lodge themselves into the fish. After a moment or two, the fish’s struggle was lost and his soul left his body.
Resurfacing, you dragged your body onto the icy ground with a mouthful of pride and sustenance. You retraced your steps back home after separating yourself from the sea lion cloak, your footprints matching up as before. Seeing the entrance to your house and fantasising about the warmth inside, you tucked into a ball to get through, when...
… Your husband calls for you and your eyes flutter open. As he crawls into the house, he tells you excitedly that his hunt was successful and that there will be plenty of cod now to save for the oncoming winter. Your family will not starve. You think of the wonderful baidarka your husband fished the cod on that you helped to construct by sewing the finest sea lion skin together. Silently, you respect the hunting prowess of all creatures in possession of such a brilliant skin and thank the providers for another winter.