Clothing is distinctly human. But how old is it?

Dr T V Venkateswaran March 23, 2011

Image: A Neanderthal museum exhibit. 2D recreation by Martyman, Wikipedia.


If it had happened to us, most likely we would have been blushing with shame and raging with anger. Who would like to be told by the schoolteacher that your kid is perhaps infested with lice? Mark Stoneking received a note advising him to ‘nit’ pick his ward. While another parent might have reacted with disgust, Stoneking was intrigued and enchanted by these microscopic creatures.

Well. Mark Stoneking was an anthropologist. Fascinated by the lice, Stoneking read up all he could about these tiny winy creatures. He discovered that head lice live and feed on scalps while so-called body lice feed on skin but live in the seams of clothing. Head lice cannot live in the seams of clothing nor body lice take refuge in the head. This provoked a deep thought and wonderment in him. He and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, looked into the origins of the two species. It was clear to them by studying lice they could perhaps unlock a long-standing mystery in history; when was clothing invented, what impact it had on migration of modern humans and how apparel technology resulted in success of modern humans over the archaic humans.

Mystery of clothing

Exasperated at the opulence of the American Ladies, William Allen Butler in ‘Nothing to Wear’ wrote, “Dresses for breakfasts, and dinners, and balls. Dresses to sit in, and stand in, and walk in; Dresses to dance in, and flirt in, and talk in, Dresses in which to do nothing at all; Dresses for Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall; All of them different in color and shape. Silk, muslin, and lace, velvet, satin, and crape; Brocade and broadcloth, and other material; Quite as expensive and much more ethereal”. In contrast sporting as little clothing as possible is trendy nowadays. Nudity and uncovering the body may be the fad and fashion today, on the contrary in earlier times elaborate clothing was a sign of nobility and fashion of the rich. In contrast during the WWII there were laws aginst wearing skirts flowing down- only knee length were permitted in many American states!

Clothing is distinctly human. No animal known so far attempts to clad themselves; neither to protect from the elements, nor as etiquette. In fact because we are able to control the ambient temperature that we can survive with little clothing, not at all a practical possibility in earlier times. Primarily, clothing protects the vulnerable nude human body, with scant body hair, from the extremes of weather, and other features of our environment. Nonetheless, people clad themselves for functional as well as for social reasons. Ceremonial robs; military uniform, customary cloths all have social values in addition to being functional. If the traditional custom demanded that a widow eschew nice soft cloth for pure white and harsh hand woven cloth, modern social moors demand that we drape appropriately for each occasion.

But how old is clothing? How far away in history can one trace the humans attempt to clad themselves? What were used to cover the naked body? According to archaeologists and anthropologists, the earliest clothing probably consisted of fur, leather, leaves or grass, draped, wrapped or tied about the body for protection from the elements. In the earliest years of clothing, probably, prehistoric humans wore cloth made from vegetable fibers and specifically in colder climates, humans donned animal skins sewn or knotted around their bodies.

Otzi the Iceman Reconstruction of how Ötzi may have looked when alive (Museum Bélesta, Ariège, France) Credits: wikimedia"

Untill the find of ‘Otzi the Iceman’ in 1991 at Hauslabjoch in northern Italy Neolithic apparels were practically a speculation. Before that only two Neolithic leather items were known, a flint sheath of flint dagger and a fur poncho. The ‘iceman’ preserved frozen with all his gear for more than 5000 years in the snow had variety of animal hides, skins and calf leather. The Iceman’s equipment comprised of no less than 7 articles of clothing and 20 different items of equipment. There are 8 species of animals among the skins and other animal products used in his clothing and tools. The foundation garment is a belt, which doubled as a leather pouch. This belt held up a leather loin-cloth and leggings made of skin had been attached to this by leather strips (suspenders). He wore a coat made from alternating strips of different coloured deer-skin. This was possibly sleeveless. The remains of an object of woven grasses or reeds was probably an outer cape of a type still used in the Alps up to the beginning of this century. A conical cap, made with the fur to the inside, was originally fastened below his chin with a strap. The shoes of calf-skin were filled with grass which was held in place by an inner string 'sock'. A 7500 year old prehistoric footwear excavated from Arnold Research Cave, Missouri indicate use of animal hides for apparel in pre-historic period. Fine. But this takes us back only 10000 years!

Unlike bones cloths don’t fossilize; hence one may have to look for inferential evidence. Archaeological studies of Upper Paleolithic Technologies have documented traces of perishable materials, including string and woven fibers that may have been made into nets, ropes, bags, and clothing. In fact, impression akin to fine netting and impression of probable headwear caused by human acids have been found by Sakharov at the excavation sites of Skhodnya river, Tushino Russia belonging to late Pleistocene age. Artefacts from a 27,000-year-old site known as Dolní Vestonice in the Czech Republic indicate use of homemade nets to capture small prey. Soffer and her colleagues identified impressions of woven material on pottery fragments found at the site. Along with similar finds at a nearby location, these discoveries represent the oldest known examples of weaving. Forty-three clay pieces from Dolní Vestonice display impressions of basketry and textiles, including one woven fragment that compares in quality to modern linen. Several imprints of string or rope contain weaver's knots, a technique used to tie separate lengths of cord into secure nets.

Apparel materials are perishable be it cloth, reed, animal skins or hides. Like all organic materials prehistoric hides and skins are preserved only under specific circumstances, mostly in anaerobic environments. They deteriorate quickly and not survive for many years like stone, bone, shell and metal artefacts and other such materials. Therefore knowledge of such clothing remains inferential. Thus prehistoric finds are extremely scarce to construe a complete story of clothing. While direct evidence in form of materials or its impression in clay may be far and few, indirect evidences have been found in archaeological excavations. For illustration archaeologists have identified very early sewing needles of bone and ivory from about 32,000 BP (before present), found near Kostenki, Russia, in 1988. Evidently this implies that the rudimentary tailoring was known as early as 40000 BP amongst modern humans, and thus by implication, clothing. Is that the complete story of clothing?

The Head and Body lice

Head lice and lice that live in cloth- body lice- are two distinct species, but closely related. Further lice can only survive for a few hours or days without a human host, and because lice species are so specific to certain areas of the body, the evolutionary history of lice reveals much about human history. This ecological differentiation of head lice and body lice probably arose when humans adopted frequent use of clothing, an important event in human evolution, for which naturally there is no direct archaeological evidence. Therefore, Stoneking and his colleagues argued; find the age of the body lice, then by inference one can deduce the origin of clothing. Ingenious isn’t it?

Body Lice Body louse Credits: wikimedia"

The human head louse (Pediculus humanus capitis) and body louse (Pediculus. humanus corporis) are strict, obligate human ectoparasites that differ mainly in their habitat on the host: the head louse lives and feeds exclusively on the scalp, whereas the body louse feeds on the body but lives in clothing. Head lice and body lice are indistinguishable, although it is generally true that head lice are smaller than body lice. Like all other insects, have a head, thorax and abdomen with six legs. Two front legs of corporis are very large in order to grab onto the hair shafts. In general, the legs of capitis, are said to be relatively shorter than those of corporis. The best anatomical distinction is in the antenna, particular, the third joint of the antenna, which is relatively shorter and broader in capitis. Head lice are generally more deeply pigmented, but the depth of the colour of Pediculusdepends on the colour of the background on which it was reared, hence the difference is not constant; probably colour is not inherited; moreover, often different parts of the body of an individual louse are pigmented to different degrees. Generally head lice are tan to greyish-white in color. Head lice may generally be recognized because the indentations between successive abdominal segments are more clearly marked than they are in body lice; this is due to differences in the chitinous pleural plate, also known as the parategral plate, or laterosclerite, which covers that part of the segment. At the same that there is rarely any difficulty in identifying a head or body louse on general appearance. Head lice dependent upon human body warmth and will die if separated from their host for 24 hours. Body lice are more hardy since they live on clothing and can survive if separated from human contact for up to a week without feeding.

Lice have simple or gradual metamorphosis. The juveniles and adults look similar, except for size. Lice do not have wings or powerful jumping legs; they move about by clinging to hairs with claw-like legs. Head lice prefer to live on the hair of the head although they have been known to wander to other parts of the body. Head lice do not normally live within rugs, carpet, or school buses. Body lice live in the seams of clothing, generally where it touches the skin, and only contact the body to feed, usually holding on to the clothing while they do this. However, sometimes they will move to the body itself. The eggs of lice are called ‘nits’. They are oval white cylinders. The eggs of head lice are usually glued to hairs of the head near the scalp. The favorite areas for females to glue the eggs are near the ears and back of the head. The eggs of body lice are laid on clothing fibers and occasionally on human body hairs.

Under normal conditions the eggs will hatch in seven to 11 days. The young lice which escape from the egg must feed within 24 hours or they will die. Newly hatched lice will periodically take blood meals and molt three times before becoming sexually mature adults. Normally a young louse will mature in 10 to 12 days to an adult.

Female lice lay six to seven eggs (nits) per day and may lay a total of 50 to 100 eggs during their life, which may last up to 40 days. Adults can only survive one to two days without a blood meal. The nymphs and adults all have piercing-sucking mouthparts which pierce the skin for a blood meal. Both the immature or nymphal forms and adult lice feed on human blood. To feed, the louse bites through the skin and injects saliva which prevents blood from clotting; it then sucks blood into its digestive tract. Bloodsucking may continue for a long period if the louse is not disturbed. While feeding, lice may excrete dark red feces onto the skin. The reaction of individuals to louse bites can vary considerably. Persons previously unexposed to lice experience little irritation from their first bite. After a short time individuals may become sensitized to the bites, and may react with a general allergic reaction including reddening of the skin, itching, and overall inflammation.

Most "modern" human diseases have in fact recently crossed over from animals into humans through close agricultural contact. However given fact that neolithic human populations were too scattered to support contagious "crowd" diseases, lice (along with such parasites as intestinal tapeworms) are considered to be one of the few ancestral disease infestations of humans and other hominids.

History as told by Lice

Stoneking and his associates used molecular clock analysis of mitochondrial lice DNA to map early human and archaic human migrations and living conditions. Themolecular clock or gene clock is an ingenious technique in genetics, which researchers use to date when two species diverged. From the number of minor differences between their DNA sequences it deduces elapsed time. DNA sequences are copied and transmitted from parents to child. It is natural that in replication process random copying errors are bound to occur. In fact the rare spontaneous errors in DNA replication cause the mutations that drive molecular evolution. Therefore by comparing the difference in the accumulated ‘errors’ between two sequences of two closely related species one could measure time of species diverging from one another. Species that have recently diverged from one another will have comparatively less ‘errors’ in their sequence whereas those who have diverged far back in time will have ‘more’ errors. Thus by counting the number of ‘errors’ in the sequence one can estimate of the time when both species had common ancestor. This is indeed possible only if we could measure the error rate of DNA replication. One method of calibrating the error rate was to use as references pairs of groups of living species whose date of speciation was already known from the fossil record. It is of course assumed that the rate of errors occurring in DNA replication is constant over time and across species.

The mitochondrial DNA (mt DNA) like all other DNA undergoes naturally random mutation. However mtDNA is passed on from mother to children and does not have any contribution from the biological father. On the other hand the nuclear DNA undergoes recombination. Therefore archaeogenetics (archeologist who use gentics to study migration, population and so on) prefer to use the mtDNA. Stoneking used the technique of molecular clock approach to date the origin of body lice, and by inference the date for the probable origin of clothing. For this study sequences were obtained from two mtDNA and two nuclear DNA segments from a global sample of 40 head and body lice, and from a chimpanzee louse to use as an outgroup. In the study they sequenced portions of the mtDNA ND4(579 bp- base pairs) and CYTB (440 bp) genes from 26 head and 14 body lice from 12 different geographic regions.

As the first step the researchers wanted to ensure that their study will not lead them into garden path. Therefore they included a chimpanzee louse (Pediculus schaeffi); assuming that human and chimpanzee lice cospeciated with their hosts. Then they went on to study as to when the P. humanus-P. schaeffi divergence occurred. Their results indicated a divergence time of 5.5 million years between P. humanus-P. schaeffi divergence that corresponded with the humans and chimpanzees divergence. Thus they were sure they are on a fruitful path. The molecular clock analysis of mtDNA of carporis and captis indicated that body lice originated not more than about 72,000 ± 42,000 years ago; and that in fact as anticipated the study confirmed that the body lice had diverged from the head lice. To verify the above results based on mtDNA sequences, they also sequenced portions of two nuclear genes, elongation factor-1α (EF-1α, 485 bp) and RNA polymerase II (RPII, 601 bp). As stated earlier mtDNA are intact during transfer from mother to progeny and therefore there are hardly any variation between the mtDNA sequence of mother and child. However nuclear genes undergo recombination and thus the Phylogenetic analysis of the nuclear DNA sequences is complicated. Yet at times they provide corroborate mtDNA studies. Comparing the mtDNA of head lice collected all across the globe Stoneking could observe that variation was more among the ‘African’ head lice compared to rest of the world. Further the diversity of body lice was less compared to head lice. Moreover the diversity analyses of nuclear genes - EF-1α and RPII – indicated that there is both more diversity in African than non-African lice, and more diversity in head lice than in body lice as was found with the mtDNA sequences.

While primarily focusing on clothing, Stoneking wondered whether lice could shed light on where modern humans originated. Greater genetic diversity in a particular geographical area implies point of origin; his team found that African samples of human lice are more genetically diverse than are lice from other regions, implying that human lice, and therefore humans, arose there; further head lice are more diverse than body lice therefore head lice originated first and body lice diverged from it. The evidences, greater diversity in Africa, recent origin, global distribution, and indication of population expansion, for body lice seems to mesh very well with the idea modern humans first spread out of Africa 50,000 to 100,000 years ago. Moreover, if the origin of body lice indeed reflects the development of clothing, then these results imply that clothing was a surprisingly recent innovation, associated with the spread of early modern humans out of Africa and into cooler regions.

However the critical assumption is that the origin of body lice reflects the origin of clothing; it is possible that clothing existed for some time before lice exploited this new ecological niche, in which case the origin of clothing could be much more ancient than the origin of body lice. The colonization of a new ecological niche usually occurs rapidly after it becomes available and hence though probable it is rather unlikely. Modern humans and archaic humans such as Neanderthals diverged about 250,000–500,000 years ago. If clothing were to be associated with archaic humans, clothing would have had to exist for hundreds of thousands of years before the origin of body lice, which seems improbable. Moreover, archaeological evidence does not contradict an association of clothing specifically with modern humans, as the only tools that can be definitely associated with clothing, such as needles, are only about 40,000 years old; and are found only in modern human settlement, none so far in Neanderthal settlements.

Impact of clothing

Perspicaciously Mark Twain said “clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society”; anthropologist now claim that suitably clad modern humans survived the last ice age, while the Neanderthals become a history. Neanderthals, archaic humans and modern humans coexisted around 100000 years ago in Europe and Western Asia. However while modern human survived, the Neanderthals became extinct about 25000 years ago. In fact, unlike modern humans, the Neanderthal body was chunkier and more muscular, and their limbs were somewhat shorter. All these features help reduce heat loss and thus Neanderthals were better placed than modern humans to cope-up the cold of the ice age. Yet modern humans survived while Neanderthals were a washout. What made modern humans survive whilst Neanderthals disappeared?

By an ingenious study Aiello and Wheeler established that probably due to improved apparel technology modern humans were able to survive even in harsh weather, whereas Neanderthals were restricted in their spread as the last Ice age progressed. They computed the wind-chill factors for 457 Neanderthal and modern human sites. They found that as the last Ice Age approached a large number of the Neanderthals sites would have turned positively frigid. For example, Neanderthals living at Kulna Cave in Moravia about 25,000 years ago would have faced winter wind chills of -24C. Aiello and Wheeler next calculated how much insulation the Neanderthals would have needed to endure this cold. They found that even if Neanderthals had worn one ‘clo’ of insulation, for example in the form of animal skins, many Neanderthal sites would still have been unbearable. (‘Clo’ is insulation value of clothing; One clo is 5.55 kcal/m2/hr of heat exchange by radiation and convection for each degree °C difference in temperature between the skin and the adjusted dry bulb temperature. One clo is roughly equal to wearing a modern Western business suit.) Despite their supposed cold-hardiness, Neanderthals would have needed a great deal of clothing and shelter to survive in these places.

Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that Neanderthals usually chose to live in areas where winter wind-chill temperatures were warmer than those occupied by the culturally more sophisticated modern humans. For example, Aiello and Wheeler found that during the period 37,000 to 22,000 years ago, Neanderthals’s settlements faced median winter wind chills of-16C, while at sites associated with modern cultures the wind chills ranged from -20C to -23C. This implies that modern humans could venture out to places that were even 4 to 7 degrees cooler.

The new clan of Modern humans appeared in eastern Europe 29,000 to 30,000 years ago complete with flash new tools, such as javelin-like throwing spears and fishing nets, which allowed them to catch a greater range of prey. They also had clothing to keep the cold out, such as sewn furs and woven textiles, and possibly more specialized social structures. Their ability to tough out the colder climes dominating Europe 18,000 to 25,000 years ago revitalised the human population. The Neanderthals, however, without either new blood or new technology, found it impossible to survive and died out, probably around 28,000 years ago. It appears that one of the key contributing factors for the survival of modern human was clothing. There is no evidence of sewing needles from any Neanderthals sites whereas many modern human sites have such needles indicating better clothing. Thus, perhaps Neanderthals clothes were probably less effective insulators than those sported by modern humans. Near naked or poorly clad Neanderthals became extinct while improved and trendy cloths sported by modern humans gave us the edge over the archaic humans. Indeed, clothing may have allowed early modern humans to colonize more extreme latitudes than their archaic predecessors, and hence might have been a factor in the successful spread of modern humans out of Africa. Stonekings study on lice corroborates these theories.

On a jovial side one could remark that in Indians sporting long and dense hair since antiquity there may be many more head lice than body lice. If Homo sapiens covered themselves with so much of drapes, India seems to be frugal with respect to covering the body. Take a look at ancient Indian sculptures; most of them are sculpted naked, few may have trifling of dhoti draped around. Most of the figures, both male and female have no upper garments. Indeed some of the female figurines do have brassieres. Nonetheless Lord Shiva according to tradition wears deer skin to cover his body and sits on tiger skin. One wonders if Virginia Woolf was not astute when she said “There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they would mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.”

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Yeah!! Thats the question

Yeah!! Thats the question which has always perplexed me that while in other civilizations there are evidences of wearing sewed clothes but the traces of clothes found from ancient civilization sites of South Asia suggest that the cloth sewing technology was either absent or not very popularly used in making the aparrels. People merely draped a long piece of cloth around body in various ways. The female garment 'brassieres' you have mentioned even they were just a piece of cloth draped around the breasts.

There is a theory that cloth sewing technology was brought by Muslim rulers with them in the early years of this millennium. And perhaps that is the reason, one would find in North India, there is a caste 'Julaha' (an artisan caste) among Muslims whose members were inherently involved in sewing and embroidering the clothes.

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