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).
Melissa A. Toups et al. Origin of Clothing Lice Indicates Early Clothing Use by Anatomically Modern Humans in Africa. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 2011. Open Access.
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…
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|