cooties date clothing

It’s hard to know when clothing originated because cloth fibers don’t last as long as, say, bones or stone tools. But researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany have found an ingenious way to date the origin of clothes by using lice, they report in last week’s Current Biology. The head louse and the body louse differ by where they live on their victims, which are exclusively human. Both parasites feed on the body, but the body louse only lives in clothes. The researchers believe that the differentiation between the lice “probably arose when humans adopted frequent use of clothing.” If they could find when the body louse evolved from the head louse, they could date the origin of clothes. Mark Stoneking and colleagues compared DNA from the lice and found that the body louse evolved from the head louse about 70,000 years ago, and the researchers believe that it is also when clothing — the louse’s living quarters — first became widespread.

This news brief appeared in the Random Data column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 8/26/2003.
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