Sunday, September 15, 2013

Costume Before Humanity?

Neanderthal man and woman figures from the Neaderthal Museum.
One of the more thought-provoking articles I've read recently is this National Geographic piece speculating about the wearing of clothing by the Neanderthals.

"Le Moustier Neanderthals" by Charles R. Knight (1920)
To the left is a photograph of an exhibit from the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany. That exhibit depicts Neanderthals as wearing drab scraps of hides as clothing--a depiction not too dissimilar from drawings of Neanderthals from the 1920s and earlier.*

The National Geographic article takes the position that this visualization may be a slander on the intelligence and couth of Neanderthal man and woman. It points out that recent archaeological discoveries include human-created items of great antiquity that could well have been parts of clothing. For example, small beads and animal teeth were found in a 28,000-year-old grave in Russia, positioned in such a way that they likely decorated clothing; 12,000-year-old graves in Latvia also contain bead-and-teeth assortments, grouped in different patterns in different graves. Spun flax threads that had been dyed pink, black, and blue that are over 30,000 years old have been found by archaeologists in the country of Georgia.

More intriguing, and to me at least more convincing, support for the antiquity of clothing is the genetic evidence from lice. Lice that live on humans, called body lice or clothing lice, cannot live on human heads or on furred animals, because they have adapted to lay their eggs only on human clothing--not on fur or hair.  A study done at the University of Florida has ascertained when the lice species that live on human heads and human body lice diverged from each other, and the answer turns out to be between 83,000 and 170,000 years ago. In other words, the genetic code of the body louse confirms that our distant ancestors, of whatever species, had to have been wearing clothing of some type or other more than 150,000 years ago--long enough ago that they may have feasted on Neanderthals as well as on homo sapiens sapiens.**

Finally, stone tools in shapes usable to scrape and preserve animal hides are even older than the lice divergence--about 300,000 years old, going back to the time of homo neanderthalensis.*** The article observes that Neanderthals who lived in climates made hostile by periods of glaciation would have had to wear substantial clothing simply to survive. Thus, even if string and cloth turn out to be more recent inventions, Neanderthals could have been making leather clothing for thousands of years before any clothing artifacts that have managed to survive to the present day could have been made. 

We may never have sufficient information to confirm, let alone reconstruct in more than a speculative way, what clothing homo neanderthalensis may have worn. But the possibility that the Neanderthals wore clothing that required significant skill to make, clothing that they cared about adorning, brings them closer to us. It forces us to open up our definition of what belongs in the category "human", and by doing so begins a process of rewriting human history. It's easy to decry clothing as of little importance and fashion as a frivolity, but the truth is that clothing is one of the major inventions that has shaped our human way of life and distanced us from other animals.

Certainly the body louse would agree.

*    Photographs shown with this post are from Wikimedia Commons.

**   Readers with a sufficient science background may wish to read the study report.  An abstract of the report and a free download link to a copy of the full report may be found here.

*** There is some disagreement as to whether Neanderthals were a different species from ourselves, or a subspecies. If they are considered a subspecies, they properly should be called homo sapiens neanderthalensis. Assuming that the Neanderthal Museum's figures correctly depict what average Neanderthal individuals looked like, I would be reluctant to argue against the proposition that the Neanderthals are part of our species, but I know little enough about the science involved to be willing to argue that the Neanderthals are, in fact, part of our species.


  1. huh, that's really recent. I had always been taught that the louse divergence was concurrent with homo erectus 1.18 million years ago- that what is know called a pubic louse ("crabs") is the human louse and human head lice are divergent from gorilla lice and that gives us an approximation of when humans lost their fur. I was under the impression the more recent age was a point in head louse evolution where the head lice of two human species interbred.
    (sorry it's just a BBC article and not a journal paper)

  2. "Fashion" was around long before even Neanderthals. Just consider male birds, who tend to be not only far more colorful than the females, but often gather "shinies" and construct elaborate patterns with them, to attract mates.

    People who dismiss personal decoration as "frivolous" ignore its importance for many social animals. Perhaps because they don't want to consider how instincts affect their own social behavior.

  3. @ synj-munki: It seems to me that the divergence between pubic lice vs. gorilla lice are a different divergence than the divergence discussed in the article I cited. In addition, the BBC article you mention (which discusses an older study in which David Reed of the University of Florida also participated) describes the study it discusses as one that pinned down the divergence between two groups of head lice--as opposed to head vs. body lice (a term which strikes me as a misnomer).

    @ Stickmaker: Male birds do not "choose" their plumage, while humans do; that's the difference, I think, between visual mating displays and anything resembling what we call fashion. However, I think you make a good point when you suggest that personal decoration is itself a social display that plays a similar role for us as plumage differences play for birds.

  4. @ florentinescot Thanks! I've had more inspiration for writing than for costuming, these days, though I hope to make some progress on my Byzantine himation (and be able to blog about it) soon.