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mattbrowne's avatar

Clues from clothing lice - Why and when and where did our human ancestors lose their body hair and learn to wear clothes?

Asked by mattbrowne (31463 points ) February 17th, 2011

Will the study of the DNA of head lice and clothing lice help solve the puzzle? Here’s an interesting article:

“Principal investigator David Reed, associate curator of mammals at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus, studies lice in modern humans to better understand human evolution and migration patterns. His latest five-year study used DNA sequencing to calculate when clothing lice first began to diverge genetically from human head lice. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the study is available online and appears in this month’s print edition of Molecular Biology and Evolution. “We wanted to find another method for pinpointing when humans might have first started wearing clothing,” Reed said. “Because they are so well adapted to clothing, we know that body lice or clothing lice almost certainly didn’t exist until clothing came about in humans.”

The data shows modern humans started wearing clothes about 70,000 years before migrating into colder climates and higher latitudes, which began about 100,000 years ago. This date would be virtually impossible to determine using archaeological data because early clothing would not survive in archaeological sites. The study also shows humans started wearing clothes well after they lost body hair, which genetic skin-coloration research pinpoints at about 1 million years ago, meaning humans spent a considerable amount of time without body hair and without clothing, Reed said. “It’s interesting to think humans were able to survive in Africa for hundreds of thousands of years without clothing and without body hair, and that it wasn’t until they had clothing that modern humans were then moving out of Africa into other parts of the world,” Reed said. Lice are studied because unlike most other parasites, they are stranded on lineages of hosts over long periods of evolutionary time. The relationship allows scientists to learn about evolutionary changes in the host based on changes in the parasite.

Applying unique data sets from lice to human evolution has only developed within the last 20 years, and provides information that could be used in medicine, evolutionary biology, ecology or any number of fields, Reed said. “It gives the opportunity to study host-switching and invading new hosts—behaviors seen in emerging infectious diseases that affect humans,” Reed said. A study of clothing lice in 2003 led by Mark Stoneking, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, estimated humans first began wearing clothes about 107,000 years ago. But the UF research includes new data and calculation methods better suited for the question.

“The new result from this lice study is an unexpectedly early date for clothing, much older than the earliest solid archaeological evidence, but it makes sense,” said Ian Gilligan, lecturer in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at The Australian National University. “It means modern humans probably started wearing clothes on a regular basis to keep warm when they were first exposed to Ice Age conditions.” The last Ice Age occurred about 120,000 years ago, but the study’s date suggests humans started wearing clothes in the preceding Ice Age 180,000 years ago, according to temperature estimates from ice core studies, Gilligan said. Modern humans first appeared about 200,000 years ago.”

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110106164616.htm

Obviously lice can also tell us something about homo sapiens meeting homo erectus as well, as shown in this article:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/3715132.stm

“Some head lice infesting people today were probably spread to us thousands of years ago by an extinct species of early human, a genetics study reveals. It shows that when our ancestors left Africa after 100,000 years ago, they made direct contact with tribes of archaic peoples, probably in Asia. Because head lice are unable to survive more than a few hours or days away from a human, their evolutionary history is tied in very closely to that of their hosts.”

What are your thoughts? What other evidence is there showing the history of human clothing? Fur would have been beneficial during an ice age. So why did we lose our body hair?

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15 Answers

CaptainHarley's avatar

We lost body hair because not having it conferred some sort of evolutionary advantage, perhaps being able to shed disease-bearing parasites better than our hairer relatives. : )

mattbrowne's avatar

@CaptainHarley – That would indeed explain why lice needed to find new territory i.e. clothes because human hair could host only few of them. Social grooming requires a lot of time when apes have to pull out each other’s lice.

CaptainHarley's avatar

LMAO! True! : )

IchtheosaurusRex's avatar

I came across an article recently that suggested this: humans lost their body hair because it gave them an evolutionary advantage in hunting. Humans ran down their game, and the absence of hair made the exertion from running long distances more bearable. If you look at modern marathon runners, they wear very light clothing, even when the air is relatively chilly, as it usually is for the Chicago Marathon.

so why did we keep our pubic hair, anyway? It doesn’t provide much warmth.

mattbrowne's avatar

@IchtheosaurusRex – The purpose of pubic hair is a visible sign of fertility.

faye's avatar

and a cushion

starsofeight's avatar

Was the loss of hair biological or environmental?

(and did cavemen dig chicks with hairy legs?)

mattbrowne's avatar

@starsofeight – In natural selection the environment acts as a filter determining the biology of future generations. Which cavemen are you referring to? Homo erectus, neanderthalensis or sapiens?

starsofeight's avatar

Theoretical cavemen.

Could the lice have come from the clothing they chose, or was it a matter of adaptation?

If man chose lice infected skins to wear, was it a matter of lice inter-breeding?

mattbrowne's avatar

The lice had to come from fur or hair. Only lice adapted to humans had the need to seek new opportunities when body hair was replaced by clothing.

IchtheosaurusRex's avatar

@mattbrowne , so a bikini wax is an effective means of birth control. Who knew!

mattbrowne's avatar

@IchtheosaurusRex – Cultural habits can override ancient instincts ;-)

IchtheosaurusRex's avatar

@mattbrowne I dunno, I kinda like a big bush. Must have some caveman in me.

filmfann's avatar

People who complain of lice problems are nit-picking.

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