Friday, January 07, 2011

The Evolution of Modern Clothing

A University of Florida study has determined that modern humans first developed clothing around 170,000 years ago and that this enabled them to migrate out of Africa. Danielle Torrent writes:
Principal investigator David Reed, associate curator of mammals at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus, studies lice in modern humans to better understand human evolution and migration patterns. His latest five-year study used DNA sequencing to calculate when clothing lice first began to diverge genetically from human head lice.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the study is available online and appears in this month’s print edition of Molecular Biology and Evolution.

“We wanted to find another method for pinpointing when humans might have first started wearing clothing,” Reed said. “Because they are so well adapted to clothing, we know that body lice or clothing lice almost certainly didn’t exist until clothing came about in humans.”

The data shows modern humans started wearing clothes about 70,000 years before migrating into colder climates and higher latitudes, which began about 100,000 years ago. This date would be virtually impossible to determine using archaeological data because early clothing would not survive in archaeological sites.
Oh? Okay, lets parse this. Modern humans invented clothing so they could move into colder climates. News flash: hominids were knocking on the gates of Europe 1.8 million years ago. This we know from the Caucasus site of Dmanisi. Furthermore, there are Chinese Homo erectus sites that date to between 250 and 550 thousand years ago. These locales were not temperate. The site of Zhoukoudian is near Beijing, which can experience temperatures as low a -4 degrees Fahrenheit. It is with this hominid that we see the first control of fire. The story continues:
“The new result from this lice study is an unexpectedly early date for clothing, much older than the earliest solid archaeological evidence, but it makes sense,” said Ian Gilligan, lecturer in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at The Australian National University. “It means modern humans probably started wearing clothes on a regular basis to keep warm when they were first exposed to Ice Age conditions.”
Again, the hominids in China lived during the East Asian equivalent of the Mindel glaciation, during which it would have been colder than it is now.The story continues:
The study also shows humans started wearing clothes well after they lost body hair, which genetic skin-coloration research pinpoints at about 1 million years ago, meaning humans spent a considerable amount of time without body hair and without clothing, Reed said.
Not sure I buy this either. You can't survive in those locales during glacial periods without one or the other. You can't pick fire up and move it around with you. During the mid- to late Pleistocene, you had hominids in southern Europe, northern China, the Caucasus and other places. During the Würm glaciation, the tundra line was at Vienna.

I would like to see a follow-up story.

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  1. Jim, you wrote

    Oh? Okay, lets parse this. Modern humans invented clothing so they could move into colder climates.

    I think that misrepresents what you quoted from the author. A better summary would be

    Oh? Okay, lets parse this. Modern humans invented clothing and therefore later (perhaps when climate or geographic changes enabled it) they could move into colder climates.

    The "so" seems out of place there.

  2. RBH, the thing I objected to is this confounded notion that anybody that is not an absolute modern human wasn't capable of any concrete thought. The tenor of the article was so myopically focused on modern humans that the implication is that it was inconceivable that any hominids moved north before the moderns did. It is, however, possible I did misread the quote. I will go back and have a look. Thanks for keeping me straight.

  3. Excellent points. I'd read the original article and hadn't given it much thought.

  4. Anonymous3:36 PM

    first thing, homo erectus is an evolutionary dead end, base upon the out of Africa theory, which shares an ancestor, homo egaster, with homo sapiens. It maybe not the change in climate, but the loss of body hair that had homonids wear clothing. And the last thing, the temperature that you claimed was it based on current temperature recordings, core samples, or other means of finding prehistoric climate because the shifts during the pleistocene was so erractic.

  5. Anonymous, there is no guarantee that Homo erectus is a dead end because, despite what you might have read, the multiregional model is alive and well, especially since the findings of Svante Paabo about the Neandertal DNA. As far as the temperature was going, I was being generous, because the Homo erectus populations living in China at the time were smack in the middle of the Mindel Glaciation, which would have been when the temperature was even colder.