It’s a question everyone has probably wondered about at some point – some people more than others. Perhaps you recall reading about studies of the molecular genetics of lice indicating a date for the earliest wearing of clothes by humans somewhere between 83,000 and 170,000 years ago. If so, that’s because this idea has been batted around for eight years or more.
So where does this conclusion come from? Well, it turns out that there are actually two different types of lice that like to call humans their home – head lice and body lice. The former prefer the environment of head hair, while the latter prefer to live in human clothing. So the natural assumption (though it’s only an assumption) is that body lice weren’t around before clothes. If so, on another assumption, body lice separated from head lice by speciation near the time humans began wearing clothes.
The standard techniques of molecular genetics make it possible to estimate when the divergence occurred – by measuring the difference in the genomes of the two species and applying an estimate of the rate of change in the genomes. This relies on the observation that gene mutations occur at a fairly predictable rate.
So far there is no physical evidence of clothing older than about 30,000 years – and it’s pretty unlikely that such evidence could even survive much longer. However, it’s conceivable that something like a crude, ancient sewing needle made of bone might turn up some day.
This lice study isn’t exactly new news. Already in 2003 there was a study (read PDF) in Current Biology that placed the date of species divergence at 72,000 ± 42,000 years ago, so the latest result pushes the earliest possible date back by about 60,000 years.
Lice genes date first human clothes – 8/20/03