Why Did We Invent Clothes?


There are good reasons to do so: in colder climes we would freeze to death without some extra padding, and in intense heat, clothing can also shield us from the Sun. However, some hunter-gatherer societies still choose to live mostly naked, which suggests that clothing is not vital for our survival.

So if being naked is so natural, when did our obsession with clothing begin, and why?

According to the article on BBC Earth, since clothes do not fossilize, we cannot get direct evidence for the time when our early human – "hominin" – ancestors stopped wandering about naked, and started draping their bodies with animal furs and skins.

Instead, anthropologists largely rely on indirect methods to date the origin of clothes. A 2011 study on lice suggested that it was only 170,000 years ago when it all began.

Researchers found that head lice and lice that live in our clothes separated at around this time.

Some others claim we started to wear clothes as we lost our body hair

At this time our own species, Homo sapiens, already walked the Earth in Africa. They no longer had much body hair, which had helped more archaic hominins keep warm at night and offered some protection from the heat of the Sun.

It is possible we started wearing clothes to compensate for the loss of fur, says Ian Gilligan of the University of Sydney in Australia.

Several modern-day hunter-gather societies, such as the Nuer people in southern Sudan, wear minimal clothing. This suggests that simple protection may not have been the only reason we started wearing clothes.

Historical accounts suggest that other hunter-gatherer societies, such as the Fuegians from South America, wore simple clothes some of the time, but also walked around naked. Perhaps early humans only covered up when it was cold.

Outside of Africa, it is easy to see that clothes were vital to protect against the cold. Another human species, the Neanderthals, walked the Earth in much colder climates, and would certainly have needed to cover up.

Humans tended to hunt animals that would have helped them make thicker, snugger furs

Neanderthals existed in Europe long before modern humans arrived. We both evolved from a common ancestor, thought to be Homo heidelbergensis. It follows that, if Neanderthals also wore clothes, clothes were invented more than once and the Neanderthals invented them before we did.

The two hominin species seem to have had different approaches to clothing.

In a study published in 2012, Wales estimated that Neanderthals must have covered 70-80% of their bodies during the winter months, in order to successfully live in some of the climates we know they inhabited.

Modern humans, on the other hand, needed to cover themselves up slightly more, up to 90%, Wales argues. This means, he says, that Neanderthals did not have to make tight-fitting clothes that completely covered them up.

We know that modern humans tended to hunt animals that would have helped them make thicker, snugger furs. The wolverine is a prime example. It would have made excellent trimming near the neck or at the edge of sleeves. Even today, wolverines are preferentially targeted by groups such as the Inuit.

Technological advantage of modern humans

Studies show that wolverine pelts don't frost up as badly as other furs, which makes them even more effective than military cold-weather clothing.

Some anthropologists argue that technology humans created really helped them out to go very quickly into new habitats. Basically, rather than having to evolve the ability to live in an environment, we simply created better clothing.

Despite this, Neanderthals, with their shorter and stockier bodies, were actually better adapted to Europe's colder weather than modern humans. They came to Europe long before we did, while modern humans spent most of their history in tropical African temperatures.

Paradoxically, the fact that Neanderthals were better adapted to the cold may also have contributed to their downfall.

 Modern humans seem to have developed better clothing to compensate their vulnerability to the cold, which ultimately gave us the edge when the climate got extremely cold 30,000 years ago. There is archaeological evidence to suggest that humans had better technology for making their garments.

In contrast, Neanderthals seem only to have had simple scraps. This may have probably left them with lower-quality clothes during the coldest periods of the last ice age.

While modern humans had more sophisticated tools and clothes, Neanderthals were not the dumb brutes once depicted, and there is no reason to believe they were generally less sophisticated than us. They may simply not have needed to cover up completely, and when eventually they did, their technology failed them.

In fact, when it came to preparing animal hides, we may have learned a thing or two from the Neanderthals.

In 2013, a team led by Marie Soressi of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands found that Neanderthals were the first to use tools made out of bone, rather than stone. They did so about 40-60,000 years ago.

After the Neanderthals went extinct, similar bone tools turned up at Homo sapiens sites. It's potentially the first evidence of something being transmitted from Neanderthals to modern humans.

If this is true, it raises the question of why the Neanderthals did not copy the modern humans' more sophisticated technologies. It may be that modern humans simply found the Neanderthals' bone tools lying around, rather than through actually meeting with Neanderthals.

Clothing for that social purpose

Experts believe that humans were probably decorating themselves long before clothes even existed.

Around 30,000 years ago, Stone Age clothes became more sophisticated still. In the Dzudzuana Cave in Georgia, researchers have discovered colored flax fibers in areas where humans lived. These could have been used to make linen clothes in a range of colors.

When you look at contemporary hunter-gatherers who don't use clothing, they decorate themselves brilliantly with body painting.

This suggests that clothes were becoming more than just useful. They also served decorative purposes. In other words, clothes were becoming symbolic.

There is evidence to suggest that Neanderthals painted themselves with red ochre pigment too, with the oldest evidence dating to over 200,000 years ago. Of course, the pigment might also have been used to tan hides, for ritual burials, or for cave art.

When it got too cold to show off painted bodies, early humans were forced to cover up. "That decorative function may have gotten transferred onto clothing, and once that happened, humans needed clothing for that social purpose as well as any thermal purpose.

This could explain how the use of clothing has become such an integral aspect to many people's identity. Similarly, a lack of clothing is crucial to the identity of some hunter-gatherer tribes, and to that of the naked rambler.

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