Putting on clothing to protect our woefully hair-deficient bodies is one of the key moments in the history of becoming human. Just when our species took this step, however, is open to a fair amount of guesswork—scientists can’t exactly dig up fossilized parkas and trousers. But what scientists can do is determine roughly when two species diverged, and that has made all the difference: Using the lice that have traveled with people for thousands of years, a team has tracked the time that humans first became dedicated followers of fashion—perhaps as long as 170,000 years ago.
The key to the study by David Reed and colleagues, which appears in Molecular Biology And Evolution, is that there are two kinds of lice that hang around humans: the head lice that live on our scalp, and the body lice that live in our clothes. At one point in the past these two shared a common ancestor, Reed reasoned, and the body lice would have split off and become a separate group once they had human clothing in which to live.
So if we can figure out when they arrived at the scene, we’d have a minimum age on clothes. Thanks to modern molecular techniques, we can compare the genomes of these two lice and come up with that date. For the curious, a “Bayesian coalescent modeling approach” tells us that we were going clothed at least 83,000 years ago, and maybe as far back as 170,000 years. [Ars Technica]
It doesn’t take much to be a vile, bloodsucking pest. You, human, have three billion base pairs in your genome, but the body louse—which has been a typhus-spreading scourge of humanity for millennia—carries just 108 million. That’s what scientists say today in a study in the Proceedings of the National Sciences that describes how they sequenced the body louse genome.
Because the body louse (a separate creature from the head or pubic louse) lives entirely on humans, hatching in our clothes and eating our blood, its genome can get away with being so streamlined, study author Barry Pittendrigh says:
“Most of the genes that are responsible for sensing or responding to the environment are very much reduced,” Pittendrigh said. The body louse was found to have “significantly fewer genes” for smell and taste, as well as minimal genes responsible for a “simple visual system,” the study authors wrote. They found just 10 genes to code for odor receptors [Scientific American].