Humans First Got Crabs From Gorillas; Insist It's Not What It Looks Like

By Rachel Cernansky | February 11, 2009 8:12 pm

gorilla2.jpgJust as humans and gorillas share a common evolutionary ancestry, the pubic lice that infuriate some members of the two species are also related. Pubic lice–known to scientists as Pthirus pubis and to most other people as “crabs”–are thought to have evolved from Pthirus gorillae, the structurally similar species that infests gorillas. Genetic analysis by David Reed at the University of Florida indicates that the lice lineages split about 3.3 million years ago, whereas it is believed that humans diverged from gorillas at least 7 million years ago. This suggests that “early humans somehow caught pubic lice from their gorilla cousins.”

But apparently the lousy parasite didn’t make the jump because humans and gorillas tried to reunite their bloodlines; no, University College London biologist Robin Weiss suspects that humans picked up crabs by hunting gorillas. Because a predator can easily pick up parasites from its prey, the lice could have jumped to early humans while they butchered gorillas for bushmeat. Some researchers say that HIV made its more recent jump from chimpanzees to humans the same way.

Image: Flickr / mrflip

MORE ABOUT: evolution, lice, primates
  • kt

    Best title ever.

  • John

    That is one of the funniest headlines I have ever read. The Onion will be jealous.

  • Uncle Al

    One posits Noah was not overmuch particular in his philandering. It was bad enough he put Vipera berus on rough-hewn benches, knowing that adders can multiply with a log table. If Dian Fossey has gone on some hot dates gorillas would be more than protected – they’d be entitled to Welfare, Medicaid; automatic admission and full scholarship at any university of their choosing.

  • Therestophus

    One posits further that one’s dear avuncular friend has a rather wan circle of acquaintance, most or all of whom share a similarly wan worldview. If one were to attach a more comprehensive descriptor to said worldview, it might involve an “-ism”—but one would not wish to do that, for that might engender schisms, and one is against that sort of thing, unlike one’s dear, dear avuncular friend.

  • cinnamonape

    3.5 million years ago? Hunted gorillas? Very doubtful. Early hominids were quite small and even meat eating by scavenging is only established to occur a million years later. More likely it would be through re-using gorilla nests as sleeping sites that may have caused the event, or vice versa? Maybe our ancestors gave the Gorillas the crabs. Perhaps it was OUR sleeping nests that were lice-ridden!

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  • Amos Kenigsberg (Discover Web Editor)

    Interesting point, cinnamonape—though I wonder if you’re biased by your ape-ness. But seriously, there have been some suggestions that Australopithecus afarensis [appeared around 4 million years ago] ate some meat based on the carbon isotope ratios of their teeth. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing definitive either way on the question of whether A. afarensis ate meat.

    But I agree that it’s very unlikely they would have hunted an animal as big as a gorilla. Weiss said humans might’ve gotten pubic lice from gorillas because it’s known that “predators can pick up parasites from their prey,” but I wonder if he was being sloppy with his language and meant “scavengers” rather than “predators.”

    One other possible explanation: Just because the louse ancestors split 3.3Mya doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s when one jumped to humans. Both species could have lived on gorillas for a while, and then sometime later just one of the species jumped to an early human, either through hunting, scavenging, or—as you plausibly suggest—swapped nesting sites.

  • jpt

    ‘Somehow’ caught pubic lice you say?

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  • Paul

    Definitely the headline of the week. I wonder what other goodies humans got from our furry cousins…

  • swingers

    Definitely an attention grabbing headline! 😉

    It is a small small parasite sharing world!

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