January 8, 2011

Clothes, lice, Homo sapiens and Neanderthals

New genetic research on clothing lice and its relative hair lice, using molecular clock estimate methods, suggests that our ancestors began using clothes only some 170,000 years ago, roughly the age of Homo sapiens as distinct species per the archaeological record. 

But the usual warning of all molecular clock estimates applies (with special emphasis, see below).


Loss of body hair is estimated to have happened c. 1.2 million years ago, in the H. ergaster phase, or arguably even earlier based on the genetics of pubic lice (3 Ma.) However it seems now that people did not use clothes until much later.

Or at least people within the H. sapiens lineage...

Fig. 1

Notice please the first evidence of hide scrapers in the graphic above: it is a clear indication of working skins. Of course skins may have been used for other purposes than just clothing, like containers maybe...

However it is worth noticing that this reference directs to Carbonell 1999, which discusses the archaeology of Atapuerca, a famous Iberian site related to Neanderthals and their predecessors. In Europe the need for clothes was much more urgent obviously and the ancestors of Neanderthals got to work on it out of need.

I'd like to know when are dated the first scrapers from Africa because I do not think they are so old. Are they? Obviously in Tropical Africa, the evolutionary homeland of our species, the need for clothing was almost none. Even today many peoples live almost or even totally naked in Sudan, while in India, many religious people do as well and in Papua clothing is often just a penis cover (or delusional enhancement maybe) out of a gourd. 

It is worth mentioning that this paper incurred in the common error of calibrating using Chimpanzee louse as outgroup, attributing to the Pan-Homo divergence the lowest possible age per the literature: 5.0 to 5.5 Ma. (when we know it is of at least 8 Ma.) Hence the age estimate should be multiplied by 1.45 or 1.6, getting a more likely age of at least 250,000 years for the coalescence of modern clothing lice and hence use of clothes by our ancestors (excepting probably Neanderthals). 

At that time (all of them) we were still living in Tropical Africa. Why would people begin to use clothes then? I am hunching here that maybe there was some need in order to colonize or otherwise exploit the Ethiopian highlands. Certainly the oldest fossil generally acknowledged as Homo sapiens, dated to c. 190,000 years ago, is from the southern slopes of that impressive massif. Also this area between Ethiopia and Southern Sudan looks to me, based on mtDNA spread, a most likely candidate for the original homeland of our species.

Location of Omo (black bubble) on a topographical map of Ethiopia

11 comments:

  1. More news (from 2004) about lice and archaic humans:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/3715132.stm

    According to this study, it seems that native americans carry some lice which are distantly related from all other lice "lineages" found in humans from Asia, Africa and Europe, and diverged from them some 1,18 m.y.a.

    It's possible that: "We either battled with them, or lived with them or mated with them. Regardless, we touched them, and that is pretty dramatic to think about."

    At the same time it is quite rare to find these archaic lice in America but not in Asia, where H.erectus lived. The authors think the divergence is too old for neandertals, but maybe you don't.

    Here's the article:

    http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info:doi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.0020340

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  2. I do not understand is why they have not taken the correct dates for this study, recently published a study accepting Toumai as an initiator of the family of hominids, with an age of between 6.8 and 7.2 million years , giving validity to the theory of molecular clock.

    Obviously the study should concern sapiens, but as you say Neanderthals had to use clothes much earlier because the weather in Europe was harder than in Africa.

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  3. Interesting, thanks, Maria Llüisa. 1.2 Ma is about the age of divergence of Neanderthals in my understanding indeed (and I follow Gómez and Martinón, among others, in this).

    It's important to notice that this paper did not sample Africa nor India, what makes it dubious in its conclusions. They also used the 5.5. Ma Pan-Homo divergence date, so their estimate may actually have to be multiplied by 1.5, what makes the American head lice a parasite of H. erectus probably, rather than Neanderthals.

    "... it is quite rare to find these archaic lice in America but not in Asia, where H.erectus lived".

    "Odd" not "rare", what in English means only "uncommon", "scarce". I also commit that kind of errors all the time, worry not: English words from Romance have often changed their meaning quite a bit.

    Anyhow, a reasonable explanation is that most of the lice were in any case from our species, as contact with other species was comparatively rare (infrequent). The presence in America of these lice must be a random founder effect (but notice that pubic lice is the same as in Eurasia, and looks pre-Columbian).

    ...

    @David: the only reason is inertia and maybe subjective preference of some results over others. There is a lot of inertia in the geneticist community for low Pan-Homo divergence estimates and I will keep protesting until that changes, because it is clear that it is wrong.

    It is not just that paper but many others (if you follow the "see also" links in my link).

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  4. "Odd" not "rare", what in English means only "uncommon", "scarce". I also commit that kind of errors all the time, worry not: English words from Romance have often changed their meaning quite a bit.


    Thanks for the correction :)
    I know, it's quite frustrating, because there are lots of common words, but the meaning rarely is the same. Also the word order is quite different, although sometimes English native speakers speak in a quite different way from what is considered "correct" English, which makes it even more confusing.

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  5. Yes, it's messy and will get even more messy as globalization goes on.

    "Order" however has the same meaning as in Spanish "orden" (command, also pattern or organization), even if it's often used in English to mean also a restaurant order or equivalent, which in Spanish would be "pedido" (asking or request). You probably mean this last.

    There are many examples of divergent meaning, though I cannot think of one right now.

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  6. ""Order" however has the same meaning as in Spanish "orden" (command, also pattern or organization), even if it's often used in English to mean also a restaurant order or equivalent, which in Spanish would be "pedido" (asking or request). You probably mean this last. "

    Nope, I mean the first one, but it also works in the second way.

    "There are many examples of divergent meaning, though I cannot think of one right now."

    For example, molest. In romance it means to bother or disturb, while in English means to rape or commit sexual abuse :S

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  7. "For example, molest. In romance it means to bother or disturb, while in English means to rape or commit sexual abuse"

    Generally 'molest' in English means 'bother or disturb'. The use as 'rape or commit sexual abuse' is usually preceded by a word speifying that usage. eg. 'sexual molestation'. Any use of the word without a qualifyer would be definitely a very modern usage.

    "Notice please the first evidence of hide scrapers in the graphic above: it is a clear indication of working skins. Of course skins may have been used for other purposes than just clothing, like containers maybe..."

    I'm more inclined to think they were used in constructing shelter. Neandertahls certainly didn't use 'tailored clothing' anyway which would be the only type of clothing modern humans could survive with in the Neanderthal habitat. I strongly suspect Neanderthals were genetically adapted to the environment rather than being strongly technologically adapted to it. They may not have worn clothing at all. Although your comment:

    "our ancestors began using clothes only some 170,000 years ago, roughly the age of Homo sapiens as distinct species per the archaeological record"

    is very interesting:

    "Obviously in Tropical Africa, the evolutionary homeland of our species, the need for clothing was almost none".

    Which impies clothing wasn't invented there. Perhaps Neanderthals invented it, and humans adopted it?

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  8. There are better examples than "molest", just that they don't come to mind when you need them. :)

    "I'm more inclined to think they were used in constructing shelter".

    It is an interesting idea indeed. I had not thought of that but makes total sense. We can even imagine that the teepee-like tents in use in all Northern Eurasia in the UP (and even today among some peoples) might have been adopted from Neanderthal usage (just a guess) but it'd be nice to know from archaeological data if they used them as well.

    "Neandertahls certainly didn't use 'tailored clothing' anyway".

    They seem to have used some type of clothes, poncho-like furs and such, and for that the skins need to be prepared (and scrapers are needed). If Neanderthals had no fur (what is likely, even if not certain), they needed clothes to survive the European climate (not just in the Ice Age but even today it is unthinkable to go around without clothes in the quite long winter).

    Similar technologies would be needed for tents and for clothes and, while tents can be replaced by other structures (like caves or huts), clothes hardly so.

    "Which implies clothing wasn't invented there".

    I have already suggested in the article why I think clothing was interesting for our species in Tropical Africa: exploiting the highlands, reaching above 3000 m. and quite cold. In Addis Ababa (2300 m. above sea level), for instance, the minimum temperatures are 4 degrees Celsius (quite cold) and the maximum ones are just 26 degrees (warm but not hot). The average low in Winter is 9 or 8 degrees, which requires clothing almost for sure. It is considered an equivalent climate to Oceanic, which is dominant in Atlantic Europe, for instance, or New Zealand as well.

    "Perhaps Neanderthals invented it, and humans adopted it?"

    We would have got ("gotten"?, not in Virginia but maybe in England) their lice probably if so.

    Anyhow, it is unlikely that there was any Sapiens-Neanderthal contact so early: they lived in Europe, we lived in Tropical Africa. We surely did not have any such inter-species contact until c. 130 or 120 Ka ago.

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  9. "We can even imagine that the teepee-like tents in use in all Northern Eurasia in the UP (and even today among some peoples) might have been adopted from Neanderthal usage (just a guess)"

    Some years ago I read a book 'Arctic Mirrors' by Yuri Slezkine about the changing views in Russia to the Siberians over the years since contact. An interesting subject in itself, but on the cover was a photograph of a group of Siberians around what could only be termed a 'teepee'.

    "they needed clothes to survive the European climate (not just in the Ice Age but even today it is unthinkable to go around without clothes in the quite long winter)".

    When Europeans first made contact the Tasmanian Aborigines evidently wore no clothing. Tazzy would be as cold as NZ, which is much the same temperature as England although further from the equator. The Gulf Stream warms Western Europe.

    "Anyhow, it is unlikely that there was any Sapiens-Neanderthal contact so early: they lived in Europe, we lived in Tropical Africa. We surely did not have any such inter-species contact until c. 130 or 120 Ka ago".

    But if the lice developed on Neanderthals the contact need not have been during the early development of the lice.

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  10. If the clothing lice would have evolved among pre-Neanderthals, the clothing lice would not have diverged from hair lice some 170 or better 250 Ka ago, but (at least) 750 Ka when they began making clothes (probably).

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  11. @Maria Lluïsa:

    terryt is right. "Molest" in English still means to bother or disturb, hassle, irritate intentionally. To narrow its meaning, it must be either preceded by a qualifying adjective or at least by context that makes it narrowed, more specific meaning clear.

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