Dressing for the Pleistocene

Posted on January 7, 2011

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I have been writing about the archaeology of the body for a long time. My route to this topic started with thinking about gender as a repeated way of acting (following Judith Butler). I became especially interested in Butler’s concept of citationality– the idea that each person strives to do gender as it has already been done. I started using images of women— sculptures and figurines– as major ways to understand sources for citation in doing gender at different times and places– the ways that we internalize desired ways of acting as men and women.

Which means I have been writing about dress and jewelry for an equally long time. Luckily for me, the last couple of years have been really good ones for anyone interested in the early history of clothing.

We have known for a very long time that clothing sewn with eyed needles and fastened with ancestors of buttons was around in the European Upper Palaeolithic. Needles with eyes, awls, and fasteners have been recovered in archaeological sites like Kostenki, Russia dating between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago.

As recently as 2009, Science magazine suggested that clothing like this was “worn at least 70,000 years ago and perhaps much earlier”.

Well, now we know pretty definitely how much earlier: quite possibly 100,000 years earlier, perhaps by around 170,000 years ago. The evidence for this proposed date comes from an unlikely source: lice.

There actually have been two different groups of researchers using studies of lice evolution to infer when humans lost their body hair and developed clothing, because human body lice are adapted to hanging on to clothing. The most recent study, by researchers at the University of Florida, pushed back the dates of the evolution of body lice to between 83,000 and 170,000 years ago. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute had previously shown that these pests diverged from head lice by at least 107,000 years ago.

This new research illustrates beautifully how the kind of open-ended studies done only in academic settings can radically change what we think we know about our human past.

But it only answers one part of the question: when human ancestors developed clothing. The lice cannot tell us why or how.

Archaeologists who have been seriously pursuing ways to infer the presence of clothing in the absence of preserved garments already got to similarly early dates, and did so by directly grappling with the why and how questions.

Early last year, Ian Gilligan of the Australian National University published a paper in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory that systematically identified the entire range of evidence that might be found for early clothing. Gilligan started by arguing that hominid ancestors were present in cold areas that undoubtedly required clothing in the Middle Pleistocene, which ended 130,000 years ago. Gilligan proposed a “thermal model” for the development of clothing, in which humans present in cold environments should have been making clothing, and then he went looking for the tools they would have used.

Reviewing archaeological sites dating to the Middle Pleistocene, Gilligan identified stone tools likely used for hide processing. He pointed out that stone blades found in Middle and Upper Pleistocene sites were precisely the kind of tools needed to cut pieces of hide in order to construct clothing tailored from multiple pieces that would work in extremely cold environments.

Gilligan added other kinds of artifacts to his review of stone tool technology that would have allowed production of clothing: bone needles, bone and shell ornaments and fasteners, and depictions of garments in art.

While bone needles with eyes date to around 40,000 years ago, Gilligan noted that bone awls — tools that could be used to pierce hides and allow threading together of different pieces—  were present between 84,000 and 72,000 years ago in Blombos Cave, South Africa. And these awls have microscopic traces of wear that show they were used to perforate soft material like processed hides.

So, like the studies of lice genetics, this review of archaeological evidence points to clothing manufacture as early as before 130,000 years ago, and certainly by 72,000 years ago.

But the most wonderful thing about Gilligan’s article is that, by relating the presence of different tools to data about changing temperatures, he can suggest why tools like bone awls went in and out of use, rising in frequency when the temperatures were cold enough to require sewn clothing.

Lice may be telling us when humans used clothing regularly enough to provide a cozy environment for pests — but archaeological evidence lets us understand the complex relationship between life in changing environments, technology, and innovation, that led to clothing cut from individual pieces and sewn together to protect the body from the cold.

I used to summarize the history of this kind of clothing by telling my students, sitting there wearing tailored, buttoned shirts and pants, that we are still Palaeolithic. Now I need to think about modifying that: we are still Middle Pleistocene.