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26 July 2009
How clothing has given humans an edge over other species

In a new study, a scientist is analyzing how humans came to develop clothing, and how that innovation might have in turn given our species an evolutionary edge over other hominids. According to a report in Science Alert, the scientist in question is Ian Gilligan, a doctoral researcher from the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at ANU (Australian National University). In his study, Gilligan wants to understand the physiological, psychological and prehistoric aspects of clothing. "I'm interested in clothing in a fundamental, novel sense, particularly its prehistoric origins and why it came into being. The reason that it is so important struck me very early on. Clothing is the thing that separates us from nature, literally and symbolically," he said.
     In addition to distinguishing humans from other things, Gilligan argues that clothing separates humans from our environment and from our physical selves. Gilligan points out that Homo sapiens are thermally very vulnerable; having at some point lost the thick fur covering of other mammals. The idea that this might have occurred in response to heat doesn't really hold up, as fur can also insulate animals in warmer environments. Gilligan's guess is that human hair loss came about as a side effect of a slowing of the expression of the genetic code in our species, meaning that we're essentially juvenile mammals in physiological terms, if not in mental capacity.
     Once the process of body hair reduction starts happening, you'll be okay as long as you're living in a warm place, he said. But, if the environment suddenly changes, then that feature can become very disadvantageous, he added. So, if the once-warm environs of early Homo sapiens began to cool, especially during ice age winters, why didn't the species revert back to being hairy and stocky, like the Neanderthals? "Even during the ice ages in the lower latitudes, summers remained hot. Biologically, it's difficult to develop adaptations to the cold if you're still under selection pressures to adapt to the heat. That's why I think Homo sapiens favoured behavioural adaptations to the cold more than Neanderthals," said Gilligan. In other words, humans opted for changing their behaviour over changing their biology to deal with the chill, and one of the most crucial behavioural adaptations was the development of fitted clothing.s

Sources: ANI, Smashits.com (20 July 2009)

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