Why Humans and Their Fur Parted Ways: "Causes aside, when did humans first lose their body hair? Dr. Rogers, of the University of Utah, saw a way to get a fix on the date after reading an article about a gene that helps determine skin color. The gene, called MC1R, specifies a protein that serves as a switch between the two kinds of pigment made by human cells. Eumelanin, which protects against the ultraviolet rays of the sun, is brown-black; pheomelanin, which is not protective, is a red-yellow color.
Three years ago Dr. Rosalind Harding of Oxford University and others made a worldwide study of the MC1R gene by extracting it from blood samples and analyzing the sequence of DNA units in the gene. They found that the protein made by the gene is invariant in African populations, but outside of Africa the gene, and its protein, tended to vary a lot.
Dr. Harding concluded that the gene was kept under tight constraint in Africa, presumably because any change in its protein increased vulnerability to the sun's ultraviolet light, and was fatal to its owner. But outside Africa, in northern Asia and Europe, the gene was free to accept mutations, the constant natural changes in DNA, and produced skin colors that were not dark.
As soon as the ancestral human population in Africa started losing its fur, Dr. Rogers surmised, people would have needed dark skin as a protection against sunlight. Anyone who had a version of the MC1R gene that produced darker skin would have had a survival advantage, and in a few generations this version of the gene would have made a clean sweep through the population.
From the number of silent mutations in African versions of the MC1R gene, Dr. Rogers and two colleagues, Dr. David Iltis and Dr. Stephen Wooding, calculate that the last sweep probably occurred 1.2 million years ago, when the human population consisted of a mere 14,000 breeding individuals. In other words, humans have been hairless at least since this time, and maybe for much longer. Their article is to appear in a future issue of Current Anthropology.
The estimated minimum date for human hairlessness seems to fall in reasonably well with the schedule of other major adaptations that turned an ordinary ape into the weirdest of all primates. Hominids first started occupying areas with few shade trees some 1.7 million years ago. This is also the time when long limbs and an external nose appeared. Both are assumed to be adaptations to help dissipate heat, said Dr. Richard Klein, an archaeologist at Stanford University. Loss of hair and dark skin could well have emerged at the same time, so Dr. Rogers' argument was 'completely plausible,' he said.
From 1.6 million years ago the world was in the grip of the Pleistocene ice age, which ended only 10,000 years ago. Even in Africa, nights could have been cold for fur-less primates. But Dr. Ropers noted that people lived without clothes until recently in chilly places like Tasmania and Tierra del Fuego.
Chimpanzees have pale skin and are born with pale faces that tan as they grow older. So the prototype hominid too probably had fair skin under dark hair, said Dr. Nina Jablonski, an expert on the evolution of skin color at the California Academy of Sciences. 'It was only later that we lost our hair and at the same time evolved an evenly dark pigmentation,' she said.
But wait, there is more!
Humans have the distinction of being host to three different kinds: the head louse, the body louse and the pubic louse. The body louse, unlike all other kinds that infect mammals, clings to clothing, not hair. It presumably evolved from the head louse after humans lost their body hair and started wearing clothes.
Dr. Stoneking, together with Dr. Ralf Kittler and Dr. Manfred Kayser, report in today's issue of Current Biology that they compared the DNA of human head and body lice from around the world, as well as chimpanzee lice as a point of evolutionary comparison. From study of the DNA differences, they find that the human body louse indeed evolved from the louse, as expected, but that this event took place surprisingly recently, sometime between 42,000 and 72,000 years ago. Humans must have been wearing clothes at least since this time.
Modern humans left Africa about 50,000 years ago. Dr. Stoneking and his colleagues say the invention of clothing may have been a factor in the successful spread of humans around the world, especially in the cooler climates of the north.
Dr. Stoneking said in an interview that clothing could also have been part of the suite of sophisticated behaviors, such as advanced tools, trade and art, that appear in the archaeological record some 50,000 years ago, just before humans migrated from Africa.
The head louse would probably have colonized clothing quite soon after the niche became available — within thousands and tens of thousands of years, Dr. Stoneking said. So body lice were probably not in existence when humans and Neanderthals diverged some 250,000 or more years ago. This implies that the common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals did not wear clothes and therefore probably Neanderthals didn't either.
....if Dr. Rogers and Dr. Stoneking are correct, humans were naked for a million years before they noticed their state of undress and called for the tailor."