Pre-History of Head Lice

(145,000,000 years ago to 3,000 years ago)

100-145 MYA     It is estimated that Phthiraptera and Liposcelididae diverged 100-145 million years ago (MYA). [Grimaldi & Engel, 2005]

“The order Phthiraptera has been traditionally divided into two groups according to their different feeding habits: the chewing lice or Mallophaga, and the Anoplura, colloquially known as the sucking lice. It is commonly assumed that the order is derived from a primitive Pscopteran-like ancestor, which became parasitic first on birds. Chewing lice with their large head and mandibles comprise the largest group with some 2900 species. … Anoplura are a much smaller group comprised of some 500 species. These are restricted to mammals, and feed using maxillae positioned at the end of a snout-like protrusion to pierce the skin. Feeding solely on blood they remain at the feeding site causing localized skin irritations to their host. Because of this they are the vectors to a number of blood borne diseases. This group includes the human louse Pediculus humanus, consequently they are probably the most well studied louse group.” [Smith et al., 1977]

~130 MYA         Saurodectes vrsanskyi, a putative louse, was recovered from the Zaza formation shales of Bassia, Siberia. This fossil is ~10X larger than any currently living louse, and presumably resided on a huge host. It had some features consistent with Phthiraptera, and was 17 mm in length. [Grimaldi & Engel, 2005]

~44.3 MYA        Megamenopon rasnitsyni, a well preserved louse fossil showing close phylogenic affinities with the modern feather louse [Menoponidae] was found in oil shale of Eckfeld Maar, which was Argon dated to 44.3 + 0.4 million years ago. The louse was 6.74 mm in total length, twice the length of similar present day lice. [Wappler et al., 2004] [Lutz et al., 2006]

55.8- 48.6 MYA   A number of lice eggs attached to mammalian hairs were found trapped in early Eocene age Baltic amber. [Voigt, 1952] The early Eocene epoch was marked by the emergence of the first modern mammals. [(Eocene) Wikipedia, 2009]

~5.6 MYA          Based on lice (mtDNA) data, human head lice [Pediculus humanus capitis, DeGeer] separated from Chimpanzee head lice [Pediculus schaeffi] about 5.6 MYA. At this time, ancient man separated from ancient Chimpanzee. [Anon., 2004] [Reed et al., 2004] A recent direct comparison of Chimpanzee and Human DNA shows that the two species split over a period of time, and that final divergence of Chimpanzees and Humans occurred no earlier than 6.3 MYA and probably less than 5.4 MYA. [Patterson et al., 2006]

~2 MYA            Pediculus humanus, “…just like their human hosts, can be characterized into several distinct lineages based on mitochondrial DNA (Foster, 2004; Manwaring et al., 2006) Head and body lice can be differentiated into 3 deeply divergent mitochondrial clades (races), each having unique geographic distributions (Reed et al., 2004; Light et al., 2008a; Raoult et al., 2008). Clades A, B, and C are deeply divergent mitochondrial lineages dating back 2 million years.” [Light, et al., 2008a]

Clade A, consisting eventually of both head lice and body lice, was carried out of Africa by the ancestors of modern H. sapiens and is presently distributed world wide. Clade B consisting of head lice only, is presently found in the North and Central America, as well as in Europe, Asia, and Australia. [Reed et al., 2004] [Pennisi, 2004] [Anon., 2004] [Leo & Barker, 2005][Light et al., 2009a] , Clade C, consisting of head lice only, is found only in Ethiopia and Nepal. [Raoult et al., 2008]

Clade B lice account for more than half of the cases of lice that currently appear in the United States, Canada, and Central America. Sometimes both Clade A and Clade B lice are found on the same human head.

c. 450 KYA       Comparison of DNA from a 38,000 year old Neanderthal bone with the DNA of modern humans shows that Neanderthals diverged from Homo sapiens ancestors ~450,000 years ago or more. The Neanderthal and human genomes were more than 99.5% identical. [Pennisi, 2006]

c. 72 KYA         The separation of P. humanus, clade A, into distinct “head” [H], and “body” [B] forms occurred  ~72,000 years ago according to a molecular clock analysis (based on the rate of mutations of mtDNA) from a global sample of 40 head and body lice. [Kittler et al, 2003] [Kittler et al, 2004]  Human head lice [Pediculus humanus capitis, DeGeer] and body lice [Pediculus humanus humanus, L.] are morphologically similar, but differ in ecology and size. On average, body lice are ~20% larger than head lice. [Busvine, 1978] “Body lice live primarily in clothing and move on to the skin to feed twice a day. They are not found on the head.  Head lice are confined to the scalp and feed more frequently. Body lice vector the bacteria responsible for epidemic typhus, trench fever, and relapsing fever; head lice are not known to vector any agent of human disease under natural conditions.”

Head lice DNA shows more diversity than body lice DNA, inferring that head lice are older. [Kittler et al., 2003]

Greater diversity in P. humanus DNA exists among African lice, than non- African lice, suggesting an African origin of human lice. [Kittler, 2003] The African lice diversity data is matched by the fact that “the greatest diversity of human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences exists among Africans. This diversity is widely believed to have accumulated because humans have been living longer in Africa than anywhere.” [(Mitochondrial Eve) Wikipedia, 2008]

c. 70 KYA         “While human population (in Africa) had been quite small prior to the Late Stone Age, perhaps numbering fewer than 2,000 around 70,000 years ago, the expansion after this time led to the occupation of many previously uninhabited areas, including the world beyond Africa.” [N.G.S., 2008]

c. 50 KYA         According to recent studies of Aborigine DNA, the indigenous Australians arrived about 50 KYA from Africa via South Asia across a land bridge connecting Australia with New Guinea. The land bridge submerged 8,000 years ago. [Wade, 2007][UOC, 2007] This DNA date matches the thermoluminescence date for the Malakunanja II archaeological site in northern Australia. [Brown, 1997]

One Aborigine legend “…tells of lice from mythical men becoming stones in rock holes. Should an Aborigine wish to punish an enemy, he would visit the rock holes, and cause lice to infest the hair of the enemy by chanting and rubbing stones together.” The Aborigines ate insects for food. [Cherry, 1991]

“There is considerable debate regarding when modern human language first came into existence. Much of the debate centers on whether modern language arose suddenly with anatomically modern humans or whether language developed gradually over millions of years with all archaic hominids. Those in favor of the “sudden occurrence” of language argue that the first indisputable signs of symbolism such as art, which are associated with language, occur in the fossil record 50,000 BP, and become significantly more abundant thereafter. They contend that language was a necessary prerequisite for modern humans to leave Africa and reach continents such as Australia, that had never before been populated by Archaic hominids. Since all these major historic events appear to take place around the 50,000 year mark, scholars believe this is when language suddenly arose, with some suggesting that it may have required some biological change such as a mutation affecting the brain.” [(Origin of language) Wikipedia, 2009]

“It is not surprising that words conserved since the beginning of linguistic diversification are among the first words we learn: eyes, nose, mouth, and so on. But there were others which were certainly very important in Paleolithic life and have been preserved in many languages; <<lice>> is one example.” [Cavalli Sforza, 2001]

> 14.35 KYA      A evaluation of the ‘Y’ chromosomes of Native Americans points to a single migration of the founding population, which occurred between 10.1 KYA and 17.2 KYA. [Zegura et al., 2004] This conclusion is supported by a later study which shows “widespread distribution of a particular allele (genetic marker) private to the Americas supports a view that much of Native American genetic ancestry may derive from a single wave of migration.” [Wang et al., 2007] One widely accepted model claims that humans entered the Americas from Siberia towards the end of the Wisconsin glaciation (>14,000 years ago) via a mid-continental ice-free corridor between the Cordilleran and Laurentide glaciers. The entry date is based on the discovery of a 14,350 + 150 year-old campsite of hunter-gatherers at Monte Verde in Chile. [Dillehay et al., 2008] In addition, human mtDNA, directly dated 14,270 to 14,000 years ago, has been recovered from coprolites found in a cave in Oregon, U.S.A. [Gilbert et al., 2008] A recent model integrates the genetic, archaeological, geolocical, and paleoecological data and concludes that the founding population consisted of between 1,000 and 5,400 individuals. [Kitchen et al., 2008]

DNA analysis of head lice, found on the heads of two pre-Columbian Peruvian mummies, showed that the lice were from the world – wide A clade. Presumably, these lice were descendants of lice, which crossed the land bridge from Siberia ~ 15 KYA. The site of the discovery had a mean calibrated age of 1025 AD. The braided hair on one head contained ~400 head lice and the hair of the other head contained ~500 head lice.. [Raoult et al., 2008]

Merritt Ruhlen found that ‘nit/louse’ was among thirty-six sets of cognate words that were shared by Yeniseian (central Siberia) and Na-Dene (Apache, Navajo, Tanana) languages, but not by most other language families. He conjectured that Na-Dene and Yeniseian language groups must have formed a single population in Eurasia. Part of this population migrated to the New World, giving rise to the Na-Dene languages, while the portion of the population that remained in Asia gave rise to the Yeniseian languages. [Ruhlen, 1998]

c. 10 KYA         The world’s oldest known direct head louse association – a nit on a human hair- was found at a 10,000 year old archaeological site in northeast Brazil. [Araujo et al., 2000]

c. 10 KYA          “The Mesolithic people used paint and as shown by two human skulls colored with cinnabar (Mercuric Sulphide) found in graves dated from the Mesolithic period…. Cinnabar is an effective treatment for nits and lice – which inhabit hair – and coating the skulls with cinnabar may have been a loving gesture of some friend or relative who wished to give a departed one a bit comfort in death.” [Cobb & Goldwhite, 2001]

c. 9 KYA           Head lice eggs were found on matted human hair glued with asphalt to a skull found in a Neolithic cave in Israel’s Northern Negev.  The cave was 14C dated to ~7,000 BC. [Mumcuoglu & Zias, 1991]

c. 5 KYA           Nits were found on a 5,000 year-old Egyptian mummy. [Fullgar, 2001; Fletcher, 2001]

c. 5 KYA           In the museum of the University of Manchester, a 5,000 year-old portion of loose auburn hair found at Abydos, Egypt “was covered in the tiny white egg cases of the head louse, commonly known as nits, and a careful search recovered three adult lice each only a few millimeters long.” [Fletcher, 2004]

c. 5 KYA          “Asiatic tweezers, consisting of two strips of metal brazed together were common to Mesopotamia and India about 3000 B.C. These likely served purposes such as catching lice.” [(Tweezers) Wikipedia, 2009]

c. 5 KYA            “The water used to wash freshly harvested quinua serves as a remedy for killing lice if used to wash the hair.” [Krogel, 2006]

“Quinoa or quinua (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.) is native to the Andes Mountains of Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. This crop … has been eaten continuously for 5,000 years by people who live on the mountain plateaus and in the valleys of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Chile. Quinua means ‘mother grain’ in the Inca language. This crop was a staple food of the Inca people and remains an important food crop for their descendants, the Quechua and Aymara peoples who live in rural areas…Seed coats (pericarp) are usually covered with bitter saponin compounds that must be removed before human consumption. Saponins may also be toxic to fish.” [Oelke, et al., 2005]

c. 5 KYA            “Plica Polonica**. A contagious disease, in which the hair is said to become alive and bleed, forming inextricable knots or plaits of great length, like the fabled head of Medusa….” [Darwin, 1801]

“One of the oldest writers on plica++ suggests that the head of Medusa might have had reference to the disease of plica. It is possible that the appearance of a plica might have first suggested the idea of the Gorgon’s head.” [Kowalewski, 1838]

“The (lice) disease (plica polonica++) is further stated to have been known to the ancients, and the heads of the Gorgons and Medusa are said to have been mere mythical representations of this form of disease.” [Kuchenmeister, 1857]

“Medusa’s images in Old Europe began several thousand years prior to her reinvention in classical Greek myth.” [Le Van, 1996]

3.6 KYA            “ … In the late bronze age of Minoan Crete, (1600 BC) … (Medusa) … is represented as the refined serpent-goddess-priestess.” [Le Van. 1996]

** DEFINITION: “Uncommonly, in patients who are heavily infested (with lice) and untreated, the hair becomes tangled with exudates, predisposing the area to fungal infection and results in a malodorous mass known as Plica Polonica.  Numerous lice nits are found under the matted hair mass.” [Guenther et al., 2005] Plica Polonica can develop as a result of an immune response of the human body to head lice bites. [Gwadz, 2003][Morewitz, 2008]


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©2010 by Harry A. Morewitz, PhD.  All rights reserved.