Published online 20 August 2003 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news030818-7


Lice genes date first human clothes

Garments appeared 70,000 years ago, suggests parasite DNA.

Today's body lice live on woven fabrics.Today's body lice live on woven fabrics.© SPL

We started wearing clothes about 70,000 years ago - at least according to our lice genes.

At that time the body louse (Pediculus humanus humanus) evolved from the head louse (P. humanus capitis), say Mark Stoneking and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. The split should correspond to the time when the body louse's habitat - clothes - became widespread.

Inventing clothes may have spurred our ancestors' spread into colder climates. Archaeological and genetic evidence points to modern humans having left Africa 50,000-100,000 years ago. "It's an astonishingly good fit with the origin of body lice," says Stoneking.

"It all makes sense very nicely - it's about when you'd expect humans to be picking up clothing," says evolutionary biologist Blair Hedges of Pennsylvania State University. Evidence of weaving, in the form of clay bearing the imprint of cloth, dates back 27,000 years. The oldest needles are about 40,000 years old.

The first clothes were presumably animal skins. But today's lice live on woven fabrics, and it's unclear whether they infest fur coats, says louse expert Chris Lyal of the Natural History Museum in London. "If lice can live on furs, they could have exploited [clothes] as soon as we started sticking them on our bodies," he says.

Lice work

Stoneking's team compared DNA from head and body lice1. The greater the difference in sequences between two species, the older their split. The researchers set their clock by comparing human and chimpanzee lice, which probably stopped interbreeding at the same time as their hosts, about 5.5 million years ago.

“It's about when you'd expect humans to be picking up clothing”

Blair Hedges
Pennsylvania State University

African lice are more genetically diverse than those from anywhere else, showing that, like humans, the species originated in Africa. And head lice are more diverse than body lice, showing that they are the older group.

Humans have a third louse, the crab or pubic louse, which clings to body hair. Stoneking's team is now looking at pubic louse genes in the hope of working out when our ancestors lost their body hair, cutting these lower lice off from their relatives. 

Pennsylvania State University

  • References

    1. Kittler, R., Kayser, M. Stoneking, M. Molecular evolution of Pediculus humanus and the origin of clothing. Current Biology, 13, 1414 - 1417, (2003). | Article | ISI | ChemPort |