When did we stop being naked?

Video by PBS Eons.

In 1913, William Matthews Flinders Petrie experienced frustration while leading excavations at Egypt’s Tarkhan cemetery. His interest was sparked by a nearby tomb, which, upon opening, he discovered had been looted, leaving behind only a few items including calcite jars, wooden tool handles, a pot lid, and a pile of soiled linen. Hidden within the linen, however, was a remarkable discovery—a well-preserved linen dress that would only be recognized for its significance over six decades later. In 1977, conservators examining Petrie’s finds identified the garment, later named the Tarkhan Dress. Dated in 2015 to around 5,500 years old, it became known as the oldest piece of clothing ever found.

Although ancient Egyptians weren’t necessarily the earliest people to wear clothing, no older garments have been discovered. This leads to the question of how we can determine the origins of clothing. Surprisingly, one of our best clues comes from an unlikely and somewhat unpleasant source. Clothing likely served similar purposes in the past as it does today: protection from the elements, conforming to social norms, preserving modesty, and expressing identity.

However, ancient clothing seldom survives in the archaeological record due to its fragile nature. Rarely, environmental conditions, like those in the tomb where the Tarkhan Dress was found, preserve textiles long enough for discovery. Textile remnants older than the Tarkhan Dress have been found, such as at the 9,000-year-old site of Çatalhöyük in Turkiye, where woven textiles believed to be made from plant fibers were unearthed.

Further back, evidence of clothing processes emerges, such as in Dzudzuana Cave, Georgia, where dyed flax fibers suggest a vibrant textile industry existed around 30,000 years ago. More indirect evidence comes from tools like needles found in South Africa’s Sibudu Cave, dating back around 61,000 years, suggesting even earlier clothing use.

Additionally, an interesting clue comes from the study of human lice; the divergence of head and body lice suggests the adoption of clothing, potentially as far back as 170,000 years ago. This indicates that Homo sapiens may have begun wearing clothes well before this time. Neanderthals in Europe also likely wore some form of clothing to cope with ice age temperatures, evidenced by tools used to prepare animal hides.

While much about the history of clothing remains uncertain, ongoing research and creative methodologies continue to provide insights, potentially reshaping our understanding of when and how our ancestors dressed.

The debate about Neanderthal clothing also highlights a broader question: how did early humans and their relatives adapt their clothing strategies to their environments? Evidence such as stone scrapers, which were likely used to clean animal hides, suggests that Neanderthals did utilize some form of clothing. Recent studies on animal bones found at Neanderthal sites hint at which species were used for their hides, like wolves, foxes, and hares—animals whose fur would provide necessary warmth during harsh winters. These findings suggest that Neanderthals, much like Homo sapiens, adapted their clothing to the cold climates they inhabited.

Moreover, the evidence of clothing among early human species is not just a tale of survival but also one of cultural expression and technological innovation. The discovery of dyed and knotted fibers indicates that our ancestors not only made functional clothing but also engaged in early forms of aesthetic and possibly symbolic practices. This adds a rich layer to our understanding of how early humans saw themselves and interacted with each other within their communities.

As research progresses, new methods such as protein analysis, advanced DNA sequencing, and other molecular techniques are likely to provide further insights. For instance, residues on ancient tools can tell us about the types of materials processed, potentially revealing more about the textiles that have not survived. Likewise, the study of preserved human skin from archaeological sites could provide direct evidence of clothing and its construction.

Ultimately, the quest to understand the origins and evolution of clothing is not just about uncovering the practical aspects of human history. It also provides a window into the social and cultural dynamics of early human societies. Each piece of evidence, from the simplest fiber to the most complex garment, adds to the story of how our ancestors interacted with their environment and each other, shaping the trajectory of human evolution.

As we continue to discover and interpret these clues, we not only fill in the gaps of our historical knowledge but also deepen our appreciation for the ingenuity and adaptability of humans throughout deep time. The journey to uncover the “naked truth” about our ancestors’ clothing practices is ongoing, and each discovery contributes to a more detailed and nuanced understanding of our past.

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