When did people start putting on clothes?
When did people start putting on clothes?

When a person is naked, they are weak. Because we don’t have fur like our mammalian ancestors and cousins did, the sun’s harsh rays and the wind’s biting cold don’t protect our skin as well. To make up for our long-lost fur, we had to come up with “portable thermal protection,” or just clothes, as archaeologist Ian Gilligan calls it.

People would never have made it to all seven countries without clothes. This new technology let our ancestors live in Siberia during the worst of the Ice Age and cross the cold Bering Sea to get to the Americas about 20,000 years ago. However, no clothes from this time has been found. Not a single piece of clothes that is more than 5,000 years old has ever been found. It’s not clear what our ancestors wore because the hides, sinews, and plant fibres they used all broke down over time. Of course, people had to wear clothes more than 5,000 years ago. Yes, of course! Experts have also found a surprising number of clues that point to a longer time ago in smart, indirect ways.

Like when you have lice. Head lice like to live in our hair, and body lice like to live in our clothes. They are two separate groups that don’t usually come into contact with each other. Head lice move from one head to another, and body lice move from one body to another. However, head lice and body lice rarely move from one to the other. This difference was used by geneticists in 2011 to look into how Homo humans got their clothes. They said that the invention of clothes made it possible for some bugs that live in our hair to move to other parts of our bodies. Based on changes in their DNA, head lice and body lice today split off between 83,000 and 170,000 years ago. Based on lice DNA, the first clothes made by modern humans could not have been made later than those times.

However, Homo humans were not the first people to make clothes. People from long ago, who are no longer alive, possibly wore clothes too. Archaeologists have found stone tools that look like hide scrapers in caves in China and Spain that are up to 800,000 years old. Homo erectus and Homo antecessor may have used these tools to soften and prepare animal skins for clothes. Around 300,000 years ago, a different ancient human group left behind similar scrapers in what is now Germany. They also left behind bear bones with cut marks that showed the animals may have been skinned for their fur.

A lot of time has passed since the last time humans lived in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, Neanderthals probably also made clothes to keep warm in the winter. Archaeologists have found polished pieces of deer ribs that look a lot like lissoirs, which are modern tools used to shine leather. The same microscopic designs of tool wear could be made again by using a modern bone to smooth out dry hide. Shannon McPherron, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology who studied the Neanderthal tools, told me in an email, “The lissoirs are good evidence for working with leather.” But no one can prove how the Neanderthals actually used them, other than saying that they were similar to leather tools we use today. In fact, it’s hard to figure out what any of the proof from ancient tools means because: We can show that they could have been used to make clothes, but we can’t prove that they were.

Archaeologists have also looked at the history of clothing in a different way by asking when people first needed clothes since there isn’t much physical proof of it.

Early people probably lost their fur for the first time in dry places like Africa, where heat, not cold, was the biggest problem. We cooled down by sweating because moving around in the heat made us hotter. The blood below our skin stays cool because water evaporates from it. This works so well that humans evolved into great jumpers. Daniel Lieberman, a paleoanthropologist at Harvard, says, “We have 10 times as many sweat glands per area as tapirs.” “And our fur was gone.” Our hair got thin and short, so it couldn’t hold much heat or wetness. The real reason we sweat is our bare skin: Scientists found in a famous study from the 1950s that camels that have been shaved sweat 60% more than camels that have not been shaved.


Early people were very good at this adaptation when it was hot, but it didn’t work so well in Europe during the Ice Age, which ended about 10,000 years ago. Their wider chests and shorter limbs probably made them better able to handle the cold, but even they could not have lived being naked. One modelling study says that Neanderthals would have had to cover up to 80% of their bodies. Gilligan, a senior associate at the University of Sydney who studies the history of clothing, says that they seem to have gotten by with simple clothes like shawls and loincloths made from animal skins.

Gilligan makes a big difference between simple clothes that flow and complicated clothes that fit, like trousers and shirts that have arms and legs that are closed in. Plain clothes are a simple way to protect yourself from the heat while you’re on the go. “But it’s not very good when there’s windchill,” he said. Fitted clothes keep you warmer, but they’re harder to make because you need new tools like awls or eyed needles. Neanderthal sites have never turned up these sewing tools. But Homo sapiens did make the change to clothes that fit them better. The oldest eyed needles, which were probably used by Homo humans, were found in Russia at sites that are at least 40,000 years old. They have also been found in China at sites that are about 30,000 years old.

As the Ice Age ended about 10,000 years ago, clothes’ ability to keep you warm became less important. In fact, the warm and muggy summers between the glaciers would have been too hot for animal furs and skins. But by that time, Gilligan said, clothes had become socially important, and people who wanted to stay cool wore lighter materials made of woven fibres, also known as cloth. He says that this need for clothes fibres caused people to move towards farming in the end. This idea is interesting, but it hasn’t been proven. However, climate and clothing have a long history of being closely connected. “I dread having to shop for clothes,” Gilligan told me, so he doesn’t really care about the new stuff. “I wear them until they fall apart.” Clothing seems to be something that only humans do, setting us apart from even our closest animal cousins.

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