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Looking to Lice for Tips on Clothing

A DNA study of the body louse suggests that humans began dressing 70,000 years ago.

August 23, 2003|From Reuters

Adam and Eve may have worn fig leaves while still in the Garden of Eden but a study of the most intimate of pests -- body lice -- suggests that humans started wearing clothes 70,000 years ago.

The genetic study of lice strongly indicates they -- and clothing -- arose soon after modern Homo sapiens began moving out of Africa and into the cooler regions of Europe.

Lice provide a unique insight into the development of clothing, according to the researchers, working in Germany. Only humans carry this species of louse, which lays its eggs in clothing.

"It seems fairly obvious that the body louse arose when humans made frequent use of clothing," said molecular anthropologist Mark Stoneking, co-author of the study published this week in Current Biology.

Three species of louse infect humans -- head lice, body lice and crabs or pubic lice. Experts agree that body lice are a subspecies of head lice and that body lice probably evolved when people started to wear clothing.

Stoneking and colleagues Ralf Kittler and Manfred Kayser, all of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, used a molecular clock to find out when body lice evolved.

They looked at the DNA found in the mitochondria of cells. This DNA is inherited virtually intact from the mother, with any changes happening through mutation.

The rate of mutation can be calculated, with a certain number of changes expected each generation. By comparing DNA of body lice to that of chimpanzee lice researchers dated it back to about 70,000 years ago.

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