The First Tailored Clothes

Few findings better illustrate geneticists' ability to cast light into surprising corners of the human past than a recent estimate of the date that people first sewed their own clothes. Early humans may have used loose animal skins for millions of years, worn perhaps like a cape against the cold, but fabricated garments were a more recent invention. Archaeologists have never been able to determine when clothes were first worn because both the materials and the bone needles used to sew them are highly perishable.

In the fall of 1999, Mark Stoneking's son came home from school in Leipzig, Germany, with a note warning that a classmate had a case of head lice. Stoneking, an American researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, read it as carefully as would any anxious parent. But as a geneticist long interested in human origins, his attention was drawn to a reassurance in the school note that lice cannot survive longer than 24 hours away from the warmth of the human body. "I thought if that was true, then lice must have been spread around the world by human migrations," he says. Stoneking figured that if he could prove this were so, he would have discovered an independent confirmation of the migration pattern implied by human DNA. But after a few hours of library research, he realized that the lice might hold in their DNA an even more interesting fact—the date when humans first wore clothing.

The compilers of the book of Genesis were so exercised by the question of human nakedness that they included not just one but two accounts of how people came to seek modesty in clothing. In the first, Adam and Eve sewed themselves aprons of fig leaves after realizing their state of undress. In the second, the Creator himself tailored the errant pair coats of skins before expelling them into the world beyond Eden.^ Neither account gives due weight to the other interested party in the story of human clothing, the louse. Once, after all, in the days when human forebears were fully covered with hair just like any other ape or monkey, the louse must have ranged freely from head to toe.

When humans lost their body hair, the louse's domain shrank, confining it to the lonely island of hair that tufts absurdly from the human head. But it patiently bided its time and many millennia later, when people started to wear clothes, the head louse seized the chance to regain its lost territory by evolving a new variety, the body louse, that could live in clothing. The head and body louse closely resemble each other except the body louse is larger and has claws specialized for grasping material, not shafts of hair. Stoneking realized that he could date the invention of clothing if he could only figure out from variations in lice DNA the time at which the body louse began to evolve from the head louse.

He collected head and body lice from the citizens of 12 countries around the world, from Ethiopia to Ecuador to New Guinea. He analyzed all the variations in a small segment of each head and body louse's genetic material and arranged each population's lice in a family tree. Knowing the rate at which variations accumulate on DNA over the centuries, he could then calculate the dates of the various forks or branch points in the tree. The branch point at which the body louse first evolved from the head louse turned out to be around 72,000 years ago, give or take several thousand years either way. Assuming the body louse evolved almost immediately after its new niche was available to it, then people first addressed their nakedness only in the most recent stage of their evolutionary history. It was about this time, or a few thousand years later, that people perfected language and broke out of Africa to colonize the rest of the world. It seems they had decided to get dressed for the occasion.

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