Lice Hint at a Recent Origin of Clothing

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It began when Mark Stoneking's son brought home a note saying a kid at school had lice. While another parent might react with disgust, the anthropologist was intrigued by these microscopic creatures.

Stoneking turned his new fascination with lice into a research project, one that offers a solution to the longstanding mystery of clothing was invented. After discovering that head lice live and feed on people's scalps while so-called body lice feed on skin but live only in clothing, Stoneking and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, looked into the origins of the two species. "That distinction probably arose when humans began to make frequent use of clothing," Stoneking argues.

By comparing the DNA of human lice from around the world, the researchers estimate in the Aug. 19 Current Biology that body lice diverged from head lice about 72,000 years ago, give or take 42,000 years.

"Even looking at the extremes of that range, it still associates the origin of body lice, and thus by inference the origin of clothing, with modern humans," says Stoneking. "People, without thinking about it, just assume that clothing is probably much older."

Since clothing doesn't fossilize, there's little direct data bearing on its invention. Anthropologists have dated possible sewing needles to about 40,000 years ago, and Olga Softer of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign has argued that figurines and pottery from about 27,000 years ago show evidence of woven clothing (SN: 10/21/00, p. 261).

For their study, Stoneking and his colleagues sequenced four stretches of DNA in 40 samples of human or chimpanzee head or body lice. …