Even as long as 170,000 years ago, our ancestors wore lousy clothing.
A new analysis of genes from human body lice indicates that modern humans began wearing clothing — and attracting lice — as far back as 170,000 years ago. That would be more than 70,000 years before they migrated out of Africa and 800,000 years after they lost most of their body hair.
The evidence suggests that the first modern humans spent a considerable amount of time running around Africa naked and hairless, said anthropologist David Reed of the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, who performed the genetic analysis reported in the January issue of the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.
Direct dating of clothing use is virtually impossible because clothing does not survive in any archaeological environment. Researchers must therefore use indirect approaches.
Fortunately, humans are the only primates that have three distinct species of lice: head, pubic and body lice. Body lice live exclusively in the threads and hairs of clothing and thus represent a way to date the advent of apparel.
"We wouldn't have the origin of human clothing lice prior to when humans began wearing clothing," Reed said. "If we could estimate when human head lice and clothing lice began to diverge, that is probably coincidental with when humans began to wear clothing."
In 2003, molecular anthropologist Mark Stoneking of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and his colleagues examined DNA from the mitochondria of body lice and concluded that humans began wearing clothes about 70,000 years ago. Mitochondria are the power plants of cells, and their DNA is often used for such studies because it is easier to decode than nuclear DNA, which contains the bulk of an organism's genome.
Reed's research team used newer techniques to study nuclear DNA and concluded that humans began wearing clothes between 83,000 and 170,000 years ago.
Most everyone agrees that the Neanderthals and other archaic humans that migrated to Europe before modern humans probably required some form of body covering to survive the cold weather. Because they didn't leave any evidence of clothing or any body lice behind, however, anthropologists have no way to document when they began wearing it.