What did cavemen use for soap?

Cavemen lived thousands of years ago during the Stone Age. They did not have access to manufactured soaps that we have today. However, archeologists have found evidence that cavemen still practiced basic hygiene and had ways of cleaning themselves, their clothing, and their living spaces.

What is soap?

Soap is a cleaning agent made from fats or oils mixed with an alkali, such as lye. When these ingredients are combined and go through a chemical reaction called saponification, the end result is soap. The main purpose of soap is to remove oils, grease, dirt and microorganisms from surfaces. Soap makes molecules act as emulsifiers, which means they suspend dirt and grime in water so it can be rinsed away. Most soaps aredesigned to not irritate skin and have additional ingredients added for scent, color, skin moisturizing, medical benefit, and more.

Did cavemen have true soap?

No, cavemen did not have access to manufactured soap as we know it today. However, they did use various naturally-occurring substances that had cleaning properties similar to soap. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence that prehistoric humans used certain plants, ashes, animal fats, and minerals to clean themselves, their clothing, and their living spaces.


Certain plants contain saponins, which are natural chemicals that produce a soapy lather when mixed with water. Native Americans and other early cultures used the roots, berries, and leaves of these plants to wash with:

  • Yucca
  • Soaproot
  • Soapberry
  • California soaproot
  • Western soapberry
  • Soapweed
  • Horsebean
  • Desert ironwood
  • Spiked sow thistle

By crushing the plants and rubbing them directly on skin or clothes, or boiling them in water first, early humans could produce a gentle, sudsy cleaning agent.

Wood Ashes

After burning wood in their fires, cavemen had access to the ashes. Wood ash contains potash, which is a natural alkaline compound. When mixed with animal fats or other liquids, this created a basic soap-like substance used for cleaning.

Animal Fats

Animal fats like tallow could be rendered from fat and mixed with wood ash to create a crude soap. The fats react with the alkalis in the ash through saponification. Early Native Americans like the indigenous peoples of California made soap from yucca plants and animal fats.


Clay, especially bentonite clay, has absorbent properties that work well for cleansing skin and hair. Some evidence indicates Neanderthals may have used clay mixed with water to create body paints and protective barriers from the sun, as well as to cleanse themselves.

How did cavemen bathe without soap?

While cavemen did not have pure soap as we know it, they still needed to bathe regularly. Here are some other ways they got clean without using soap:

  • Swimming/bathing in lakes, rivers, or the ocean
  • Using exfoliating sand or clay to scrub skin
  • Letting the rain rinse away dirt and oil
  • Scraping clean with sticks, rocks, seashells
  • Using animal hair or textured plants as brushes
  • Applying animal fat then scraping it off with a dull blade

How did cavemen clean their clothes without soap?

Cavemen had to keep their animal skins, furs, and textiles clean, even without pure soap. Some evidence indicates they may have used these methods:

  • Beating clothes against rocks to knock out dried dirt or debris
  • Rinsing in streams and letting them air dry
  • Rubbing stains with ashes, sand, or clay
  • Using yucca or soaproot plants to wash delicate textiles
  • Letting rainwater naturally wash their clothing
  • Using animal brains or marrow to pretreat tough stains
  • Smoke from fires may have acted as a disinfectant
  • Hanging furs and hides in the sun to freshen

What natural cleaning agents did cavemen use around their homes?

In their dwellings and living spaces, cavemen needed to perform cleaning tasks as well. Without synthetic cleaners and disinfectants, they may have turned to these natural solutions:

  • Sand, ash, or clay to scrub surfaces
  • Plant fiber brushes
  • Leather rags
  • Animal bones, shells, or sticks to scrape and scrub
  • Yucca or soaproot suds as all-purpose cleaners
  • Wood ash mixed with animal fat to polish metals
  • Stiff grasses or straw to sweep floors
  • Smoke from fires to sanitize and disinfect living areas

What methods of hygiene did cavemen practice?

While grooming and hygiene was more basic, archaeologists believe cavemen still practiced methods to stay clean and healthy. Some of the personal hygiene habits were:

  • Bathing in water frequently
  • Using smoothed sticks or frayed ends of rope as toothbrushes
  • Picking out debris from teeth and flossing with fiber threads
  • Washing and combing hair with sticks or fish bones
  • Trimming hair and beards with sharpened flints or shells
  • Scraping clean the underarms and groin area
  • Applying animal fats, clay, or mud as sunscreen and insect repellent
  • Burning herbs or absorbing them through smoking pipes for oral hygiene

How did cavemen make soap-like substances?

While cavemen did not make true soap, archaeological evidence indicates they made cleaning agents by:

  • Mixing crushed yucca roots or soaproot with water to make suds
  • Boiling or agitating plants high in saponins to release their soapy agents
  • Rendering animal fat by cooking then mixing it with wood ash to emulsify
  • Letting rain soak the ashes from burned plants to extract potash
  • Adding oils from animals like emu or olive oil from wild plants to create soapy liquids
  • Combining clay and plant purees to absorb oil and grime from skin and surfaces

What evidence is there that cavemen tried to get clean?

There is significant evidence that cavemen and ancient humans did practice basic hygiene and cleaning habits despite not having modern soaps and detergents. This evidence includes:

  • Fire pits from burning wood for ash
  • Polished stones for scraping and scrubbing
  • Plants containing saponins growing near settlements
  • Flint blades for shaving and hair cutting
  • Combs carved from bone and wood
  • Water vessels to haul from rivers and springs
  • Outdoor fireplaces and bathing areas at sites
  • Graves containing personal grooming tools
  • Artwork and early writing referencing hygiene practices

By studying ancient artifacts and cave paintings, scientists confirm that while caveman cleanliness was primitive compared to today, they still tried to keep themselves and their living areas clean as an early form of public health.

When did humans start using true soap?

The earliest recorded evidence of manufactured soap-like compounds dates back to around 2800 B.C. in Ancient Babylon. Early civilizations like the Egyptians, Romans, and Gauls are credited with early soap production. Soap became more widely available by the Middle Ages in Europe. Commercial soap making began taking off in the 19th century as chemists perfected synthetic detergents and ingredients that made soap easy, cheap, and available for the masses.

How was soapmaking discovered?

Early soapmaking was discovered by accident. Fats or oils exposed to an alkali heat source can go through saponification and create soap. Ashes from plant and wood fires contain alkali compounds, so this reaction was likely discovered when fats dripped into ashes got stirred in. Ancient people may have noticed clothes got cleaner when washed in certain streams containing natural alkali. Animal sacrifices near fire-pits perhaps led to the fat and ash reaction. Eventually early chemists learned how to extract alkalis from ashes and plants to purposefully make soapy cleaning agents.

When did modern hygiene and grooming begin?

Grooming habits and hygiene practices became more advanced during the early civilizations. Some key developments include:

  • Egyptians used scented oils, cosmetics, skin creams, perfumes, and breath fresheners.
  • Middle Eastern cultures bathed regularly and even had public bathhouses.
  • Asians cleaned their teeth with chew sticks and freshened breath with herbs.
  • Romans created elaborate public baths and toilets with sewers.
  • Ancient Greeks washed up with oils, perfumes, and scraper tools.
  • Indus Valley inhabitants had advanced public sanitation systems.
  • European public bathhouses cleaned people before the Middle Ages.

Once manufactured soap became widespread in the 1800s, modern hygiene practices emerged including daily bathing, dental care, deodorants, and grooming as we know it.

Why was soap so important in ancient civilizations?

Soap offered many benefits to early civilizations that led to its importance and prevalence:

  • Sanitation – Soap kept populations cleaner, reducing disease spread.
  • Deodorizing – Soaps made people and cities smell better, an early form of pollution control.
  • Purity – Religious cleansing rituals used soapy water or oils to become spiritually clean.
  • Health – Cleaner food and living conditions improved community health.
  • Appearance – Soaps improved smoothness of skin and appearance.
  • Order – Public bathing and hygiene laws enforced order in societies.

As civilizations advanced, soap took on greater symbolic, spiritual, and practical significance for improving cleanliness and health.


In summary, cavemen did not have pure soaps as we use them today. However, there is evidence they practiced crude methods of washing themselves, their clothes, and their living areas using naturally occurring cleaning agents. Early civilizations advanced soapmaking by extracting plant alkalis and fats to create true soaps. Access to manufactured bars of soap and cleaning agents did not become widespread globally until the 1800s with advancements in chemistry and industry. Soap became an essential product for improving sanitation, health, order, and quality of life as civilizations advanced. While we take soaps and modern hygiene for granted today, their earliest predecessors got their start thousands of years ago among our cave-dwelling ancestors.

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