When did we start wearing clothes? We don’t know for sure, but the genetics of lice, prehistoric needles, and ivory carvings give us some clues.
I have written before (oldest shoe, proto-knitting) about how difficult it is to find prehistoric textiles because they decay much quicker than metal or stone. This makes it exceptionally difficult to work out just when the human race began wearing clothes. But some researchers have tried anyway.
Three types of lice live on humans. Hair lice live on our head hair (obviously), crabs live on our pubic hair, and body lice live in our clothes. Some clever researchers have hypothesised that the genetic divergence of body lice and hair lice would give us a good clue about when we began wearing clothes: that particular parasite must post-date human clothing because they’ve adapted specifically to inhabit it. By that measure, human clothing must be more than a hundred thousand years old.
We may not find ancient clothes in the archaeological record, but we can find the ancient needles that made them. Prehistoric needles in Denisova Cave – in modern Russia – have been dated as far back as fifty thousand years, and there’s also a South African candidate from sixty thousand years ago.
How about artistic representations of clothing? The earliest known depiction of spun thread appears on the Venus of Lespugue, a mammoth ivory statuette dating back to twenty-four to twenty-six thousand years ago. The figurine appears to be wearing a skirt.
As with most prehistoric research, we have no definitive answers yet, just a lot of tantalising evidence and ingenious hypotheses.