Clothes Make the (Ancient) Man

“Good clothes,”  wrote Thomas Fuller in 1732  in his book of proverbs, Gnomologia,  “open all doors.” The British physician was  almost certainly thinking of the importance of a spiffy tailcoat and breeches and a dressy lace shirt when trying to make friends among the wealthy and titled in 18th century England. But Fuller’s proverb could apply to early hominins as well:  with the right clothing, our ancestors could survive winter cold and colonize increasingly hostile environments  in Eurasia.

All this of course begs a question,  or rather two.  Who were the first clothes horses?  And when did our mania for fashion begin?  Archaeologists have never had much clear evidence to go on,  for pieces of hide clothing or textiles tend to rot rapidly in the ground.    But new research presented last week at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists sheds new light on the matter,  by looking at an unlikely source of information: the human body louse.

This louse (known scientifically as Pediculus humanus humanus) is very fond of human clothing.  It breeds by attaching its  eggs to clothing fibers–particularly along inside seams or other parts of a garment that lay next to human skin.  These eggs need our body heat to hatch.  Then as nymphs and adults, they require something more from us:  blood meals.    In some parts of the world,  where people have little access to laundered clothing,  these parasites spread typhus and other diseases.

So how does all this relate to the origins of clothing?  Well,  Andrew Kitchen,  a postdoc at the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Pennsylvania State University,  and his colleagues looked at the evolution of the body louse.  By analyzing both the mitochondrial and nuclear DNA of both head and body lice, Kitchen and his team determined that body lice first evolved as a separate species sometime between 220,000 and 1 million years ago.  And,  if Kitchen’s team has it right,   this means that humans possessed clothing at least 220,000 years ago,  if not earlier.

This is much, much earlier than previous estimates of 70,000 years ago for the divergence of the two species.   And the new evidence “suggests that the use of rudimentary clothing originated not with anatomically modern humans or even late surviving species such as H. neanderthalensis in the Late Pleistocene,  but much earlier,”  observes Kitchen in the meeting abstract.  The team refrains from speculating on the likeliest candidate for the world’s earliest clothes horse.   One possibility, however, is clearly Homo erectus.

Kitchen’s work will now need to be confirmed by other labs.  But if the findings hold up,  they point to a several interesting things.  First of all,  archaic humans were more technologically innovative than previously thought,  learning to make clothing to protect their bodies from the elements.  And secondly,  the findings suggest that archaic humans had the protective gear to move into high latitude environments (ie cold places ) much earlier than suspected.

This is one interesting study.