Foragers Were Naked

The pubic louse evolved around 3.3 million years ago, … and it could not have done so until ancestral humans lost their body fur, creating its niche. What’s more, [we have] dated the evolution of body lice, which live in clothing, to around 70,000 years ago. So it looks like our ancestors wandered around stark naked for a very long time. (more)

Theories of why we stayed naked for so long vary:

When our ancestors moved to more open ground, natural selection would have favoured individuals with very fine hair to help cooling air circulate around their sweaty bodies. But sweating requires a large fluid intake, which means living near rivers or steams, whose banks tend to be wooded and shady – thus reducing the need to sweat. What’s more, the Pleistocene ice age set in around 1.6 million years ago and even in Africa the nights would have been chilly. … Other animals on the savannah have hung on to their fur. …

[Some argue] that we did not shed our pelts until we were smart enough to deal with the consequences, which was probably after modern humans evolved, about 200,000 years ago. “We can make things to compensate for fur loss such as clothing, shelter and fire.” … [Some argue] natural selection favoured less hairy individuals because fur harbours parasites that spread disease. Later, sexual selection lent a hand, as people with clear, unblemished skin advertising their good health became the most desirable sexual partners and passed on more genes.

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  • John Maxwell

    It seems more plausible to me that one of the lice figures is wrong than that humans were fur free and naked through the Ice Age.

    My understanding was that humans are unusually good at keeping cool so they could run down prey and kill it through heat exhaustion.

    The only two victories by human runners in the 32-year-old [man versus horse] race have come in the past seven years, inspiring Mr. Terry and a record 286 fellow runners to pit themselves against 50 horses this year. Both wins came on hot days, where people have an evolutionary edge: People sweat more easily than horses because they lack the heavy horsehair.

  • Brandon Reinhart

    Given my acne, I shudder to wonder what kind of blemished skin those old timers had.

  • Mark M

    I don’t know if I buy the whole evolution of lice thing. I mean – did ancient pubic lice always hang out in pubic regions, or did they migrate there over timem? Scientists have few clues about this sort of thing, and new evidence changes the outcome frequently. Remember when dinosaurs used to drag their tails on the ground behind them?

    But I can still buy into the sexual selection theory. The sight of unblemished healthy skin = sexy, even today.

  • Poelmo

    “What’s more, the Pleistocene ice age set in around 1.6 million years ago and even in Africa the nights would have been chilly.”

    Are you abolutely sure about that? There must have been parts of Africa where it remained warm. If not, they may have used warm desert rocks to stay warm at night, like the Tuareg nomads of the Sahara still do.

  • Tony

    Alternately, clothing made out of fibers that could support this particular louse type was invented then and other coverings were used before.

  • Ken

    Aquatic ape theory gives a good reason: wearing clothes in water is very cumbersome.

    • Poelmo

      So does the “our ancestors were created by aliens” theory…

      • Miley Cyrax

        Great, this is going along perfectly with my Ancient Aliens Aquatic Apes Theory (AAAAT).

      • Ken

        Please explain.

    • So does the “eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge” idea.

      • Ken

        Please explain how.

      • One of the prevailing ideas in some circles is that humans wear clothes because they feel shame at being naked because the first two humans ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge against prior instruction. Eating that fruit is what caused humans to become self-aware and so to become self-conscious and ashamed at being naked and hence the need/desire to cover up their nakedness by wearing clothes.

        It is not an idea that I subscribe to, but many people do (or claim that they do).

      • Ken

        So where is this tree of knowledge?

      • John

        Supposedly, the trees of Knowledge and Life are behind a heavily-guarded gate somewhere in Iraq. If that were true, though, you’d expect people to be sweeping the area with military forces all the time (under various pretexts) until they found it.

      • Some believe the tree to have been in Missouri.

        Presidential candidate Romney very likely professes this belief.

        However most residents of Missouri would likely not believe this unless the tree were shown to them because Missouri residence have the reputation expressed by their U.S. Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver, that “frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me”.

        It is not clear what the other Presidential candidates believe, or what type of eloquence satisfies them, but Santorum is known to have a special relationship with things that are frothy.

    • David

      Well, that theory has an unfortunate name, but I would put it this way: Our ancestors may have done a lot of swimming at one point in their history. This is the most common reason for mammals to lose fur and develop subcutaneous fat (chimps don’t have it). Nobody suggested we lived in the sea, just that we foraged there a lot, both wading bipedally and swimming. Newborn humans can swim; not so for any of our primate relatives. It’s hard to believe that’s just a strange epiphenomenon of dry savanna evolution.

      • Poelmo

        Aardvarks are land mammals that aren’t aquatic, live in Africa and have almost no hair and last time I checked they’re still doing just fine… The same goes for rhinos and elephants (though they are bigger than humans and can thus hold on to their body heat more easily, while aardvarks are smaller than humans).

        So Robin, I recommend asking your question to a biologist who has studied aardvarks.

  • Given his other books I’m skeptical about your conclusions about his ethics.

    Generally, he is very positive about ems and even ems that have significantly changed their ‘brain’ structure from humans.

    You have to understand about Egan that his scifi is just about the ideas. I think the plot and the charachters are just constructs to communicate them and generally not very well done.

    I have no doubt the hacker league is unconvincing and improbable. I read Egan because he communicates new ideas and feel that’s a lot better than good plot or characters who do nothing but push a bunch of evolutionary buttons that make me feel good (though I like that too).

    • You commented on the wrong post! I believe you meant to comment on this one.

  • Sid

    Nice. This lends support to the clothing as signalling theory. As we became more social (farmers), we evolved more ways to signal. It also matches the observation that as we go back to our forager ways (in industrial nations) we’ve become more comfortable with nudity.

    Interesting: as clothing has become cheaper, the new signalling mechanism has become the body itself. Hence, the development of fashion that shows a lot of skin, and also the obsession with perfect bodies.

    • Poelmo

      Clothing existed tens of thousands of years before the invention of agriculture.