When Did Clothing Originate?

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Not long ago, I left my home in sunny Australia to join an archaeological dig in the Siberian mountains of eastern Russia. On the first morning, I awoke cold to my core, even in a well-padded sleeping bag. I crept near the campfire and held my hands so close that the gloves began to smolder. But I kept shivering. I was cold on the inside.

As a medical doctor, I recognized the symptoms of mild hypothermia.

Siberia is a region where people surely always needed warm apparel. The origins of clothing is my special interest, a notoriously difficult topic because items of dress rarely last long. Trained in medicine and archaeology, I investigate the matter by combining what’s known about the thermal limits of human bodies and paleoenvironments. My brush with hypothermia, though embarrassing for someone with my expertise, reaffirmed my approach.

Standards of body cover vary across cultures. But many people would be mortified to be caught unclad in public. For folks in cold climates, insufficient clothing can be fatal, as I sensed in Siberia. Yet no other creatures don garments. Why our ancestors, alone in the entire animal kingdom, adopted clothes is one of those big questions that science has only recently begun to tackle.

Though many gaps in the story remain, the emerging evidence suggests clothing really had two origins: first for biological needs, then cultural.

The invisible remnants of early clothes

Archaeologists who study the Paleolithic or Stone Age tend to ignore clothing. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, considering not a single shred has survived from this ice age era between roughly 2.6 million and 12,000 years ago. Archaeologists are reluctant to look for something they will never find.


https://th-thumbnailer.cdn-si-edu.com/5mJQvstX-QRKhAw4jWIg_DMvuis=/1000x750/filters:no_upscale():focal(800x602:801x603)/https://tf-cmsv2-smithsonianmag-media.s3.amazonaws.com/filer_public/55/9c/559cf9dc-6efa-4e50-95df-26c2fb173605/gettyimages-1002452014_web.jpgParticipating in an archaeology experiment, a contemporary woman dons fur clothing similar to what Paleolithic people in colder climates might have worn. Markus Scholz / Picture Alliance / Getty Images



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