Mark Twain quipped, "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society."
Given the fact that most of us are clothed most of the time, it's easy to lose sight of how odd it is. We're one of the only species that covers our bodies -- the only others I can think of offhand are hermit crabs and caddisfly larvae. In the climate where I live, of course, a lot of it is necessity. For nine months of the year, we get temperatures that would be pretty uncomfortable if we weren't dressed warmly; for six of those months, if I ran around naked I'd risk freezing off body parts I still occasionally have a use for.
Even when it's warm, though, just about all of us wear some kind of body covering, for the sake of adornment, propriety, or (usually) both. It's a custom in just about every culture on Earth.
But how long has this been going on? Its ubiquity speaks to its antiquity; something shared by almost everyone is probably either highly important, or else very old. (Once again, probably both.) When we picture our distant ancestors, we usually think of them in furs and skins:
Gary Larson's cavemen aside, when did humans first start wearing clothes?
Some new research on fossils in Germany suggests it might be a lot longer ago than we realized -- perhaps as much as 300,000 years.
Archaeologists studying bones of cave bears (Ursus speleus) near the town of Schöningen found knife marks on the phalanges, metacarpals, and metatarsals -- the bones of the paws. When butchering an animal for meat, the paws are usually ignored; there is little meat there, so the effort just isn't worth it. The archaeologists studying the site claim that this is evidence that the men and women who cut up the unfortunate bears whose remains are at the site were after something else -- fur."The study is significant because we know relatively little about how humans in the deep past were protecting themselves from the elements," said Ivo Verheijen of the University of Tübingen, co-author of the study, which appeared two weeks ago in The Journal of Human Evolution. "From this early time period, there is only a handful of sites that show evidence of bear skinning, with Schöningen providing the most complete picture. We found the cutmarks on elements of the hands/feet where very little meat or fat is present on the bones, which argues against the cutmarks originating from the butchering of the animal. On the contrary, in these locations, the skin is much closer to the bones, which makes marking the bone inevitable when skinning an animal."
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