When did humans begin to wear clothes


By Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh

Dr. Irengbam Mohendra Singh

When I was in class IV in school, I still remember, the teacher explaining in Manipuri literature why we wear clothes: ‘we wear clothes to protect us from hot and cold and for modesty.’ It is still true.

But in modernity, we also wear clothes to show who we are eg for cultural identity, such as tribal dresses, Indian dhoti; expensive and fancy dresses worn by celebrity women; for rank and station as in the Army; to indicate a profession such as doctor’s white coat, nurses’ uniforms; to make us look good and distinct, such as black dinner jacket and a black bow tie for formal functions, or customary dresses such as Manipuri bride’s Stiff wedding skirt or Indian bride’s red sari.

We also wear clothes for social possessions such as ‘Khamen chatpa’ dhoti for Manipuri courtiers, ceremonial gowns for Lords in the House of Lords, London; and to show the personality of the wearer eg hippy dresses, leather jackets for hell riders. People also wear clothes for sanitary reasons such as underpants for man and pants for female.

But nobody knows when we began to wear any kind of clothing apart from the sketch of cartoon caveman and his wife, based on the concept of the way in which early prehistoric humans might have worn shaggy animal hides. The BBC “Flintstones” series depict such attires. The concept of “cavemen” came from the findings of various paintings in caves, presumed to be Neanderthal people who must have lived in the caves to shelter from the freezing cold of the late Ice Age.

My wife and I went once inside a cave of not so distant past, of Mahabharat period at the Panchgani (five plateaus) hill station near Mahabaleswar in Maharasthra, where the five Pandav brothers took shelter in that barren open land.

Only recently, some geneticists have found out that our human ancestors began wearing clothes only about 72,000 years ago. It came about surprisingly, from the study of the evolution of human body lice.

Human lice thrive on blood. They are wingless insects that spend their entire life on humans.

Dr Smith et al of the Natural History Museum, London, have found that the human head louse evolved from the chimpanzee louse when the ancestors of humans and chimpanzees split apart some five million years ago.

The human pubic lice (crab), on the other hand are related to gorilla lice, from which it parted company some 13 million years ago. Species of human lice thus mirror the splits of the tree of ape and human evolution.

The oldest known fossils of louse eggs ie nits, are approximately 10,000 years old. Lice have been with us so long that lice related phrases such as “lousy,” “nit-picking,” and “going over things with a fine-tooth comb,” are everyday vocabulary.

Body lice killed millions of people by transmitting diseases. They helped Napoleon’s defeat in Russia by spreading disease to his army.

The head, body and pubic lice live separate life styles. The head and body lice do not normally interbreed (could do in laboratory). There is no interbreeding with pubic lice.

Human lice are no respecter of social class or cleanliness. The term ‘nit’ mainly refers to the egg. One generation lasts about one month. They have 4-5 meals a day by sucking blood of the host. When they bite they inject saliva that contains a chemical, which prevents blood from clotting (like mosquitoes’). Then they suck up blood. While feeding, lice may excrete dark red faeces on to the skin.

They move like monkeys, using powerful claw-like legs to transfer from hair to hair. Their claws can grip up to six hairs simultaneously to prevent them from being dislodged.

A geneticist, Mark Stoneking et al, at the Max-Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzic, Germany in 1999, studied the DNA of body lice and published a paper on August 19 2003 that human head lice and body lice differ in their habitat on the host. The body lice feed exclusively on the body but lives in clothing, while the head lice live and feed on the scalp only.

Their hypothesis was that when humans lost their body hair, the lice population became confined to the head and pubic areas.

After millions of years when people started to wear clothes, the head lice evolved into a new variety of body lice that could live in clothing. The body lice became larger and developed claws specialised for grasping material but not for grasping shafts of hair.

Stoneking et al collected head and body lice from people living in countries around the world. He studied the genetic material from the body and head lice. Knowing the rate at which variations accumulate on DNA over centuries, he calculated the dates of variations of branch points in the lice family tree. The branch point at which the body lice first evolved from the head lice turned out to be around 72,000 years ago.

The finding showed that humans began to wear clothes about 72,000 years ago. There are no archaeological findings to support the finding as clothes could not have survived so long.

Their study also showed that there is a greater diversity in African than non-African lice, suggesting an African origin of human lice. They also estimated the origin of the body lice

about 107,000 years ago in Africa that correlates with the spread of anatomically modern humans from Africa.

Another very recent article by David Reed et al on Lice DNA Study, published in ‘Science Daily’, University of Florida on May 1 2011, shows that Modern humans started wearing clothes about 170.000 years ago.

The new study seems more accurate partly because new data on lice evolution began to develop only during the last 20 years with newer calculation methods. It is also because humans must have started wearing clothes during the last Ice Age for survival.

The last Ice Age occurred about 120,000 years ago, but the study suggests that humans started wearing clothes in the age preceding the last Ice Age, 170,000 years ago.

The simple theory is that as the body lice prefer to live in human clothing, the natural assumption would be that the body lice were not around before humans began to wear clothes. Put it the other way, the body lice evolved from head lice at about the time when humans began wearing clothes.

What the scientists have done is to study the molecular genetics of lice. The study would make it possible when the body lice separated from the head lice, by measuring the difference in the genomes of the two species and then observing the rate of change in the genomes ie gene mutations.

Lice are chosen for this scientific study because unlike other parasites, they are stranded on lineages of hosts over long periods of evolutionary time.

David Reed et al’s findings are totally in agreement with the findings of Prof Curtis Marean of the Institute of Arizona State University, who led an International Team that carried out excavations of a series of caves at Pinnacle Point, Mossel Bay. There they discovered the presence of Middle Stone Age people, 170,000 years ago.

They found the earliest evidence of human consumption of shell fish, evidence of heat treatment, rocks to make stone tools, and the use of ochre to beautify. Their conclusion is that between 400-700 of these Homo sapiens (thinking men and women) survived the Ice Age in Mossel Bay with a mild climate and by eating roots, seeds and so on, along with shell fish as proteins. Middle Stone Age (Palaeolithic) people are known to have clothed themselves by draping animal hides, sometimes bound with sinew.

Mossel Bay has become a hot potato for archaeology in the last few years since Prof. Marean delivered the opening address to the 44th Nobel Conference at the Gustavus Adolphus College in St Peter, Minnesota, on October 7 2008. In this lecture, “The African evidence for the Origins of Modern Human Behaviour”, he explained that the climate, vegetation and geography of the Mossel Bay area provided perfect living conditions for the core population of about 600 individuals who were the ancestors of humankind.

Mossel Bay is a harbour town of about 130,000 people, on the Southern Cape of South Africa. During routine archaeological surveys to develop the Pinnacle Point Beach and Golf resort, a series of caves cut into the sea-facing cliffs were discovered.

The Mossel Archaeological Project was formed, led by Curtis Marean ( a paleaeoanthropologist). They began excavations in the year 2000 and discovered that the caves were occupied between 170,000 and 40,000 years ago by Middle Stone Age people.

David Reed et al thus claimed that clothes first appeared in Africa as early as 170.000 years ago – roughly with the rapid onset of an ice age.

P.S. This article is an upshot on the one in my Book: “The Origin of The Meiteis of Manipur & Meiteilon is not a Tibeto-Burman language (2009 p88)

The write is based in the UK
Email: imsingh(at)onetel.com
Website: www.drimsingh.co.uk

Published: March 9, 2012


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