Lice in the Americas

(Revised: 3-2-09)

> 12,350 BC      An evaluation of the ‘Y’ chromosomes of Native Americans points to a single migration of the founding population, which occurred between 10,100 and 17,200 years ago. [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]

Merritt Ruhlen (1944 –  ), an American linguist, 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. 8,000 BC     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. 2000 BC      A 4,000 year old natural mummy was found in a cave in Surco, Peru. Nits and lice were attached to some of the hair. [Ewing, 1926]

1900-1500 BC    Hair samples from seven Pre-Columbian mummies from Camarones, Chile were 14C dated to ca. 1900-1500 BC. Nits were found in six of the hair samples. [Mumcuoglu, 2005]

500 BC -1150 AD   A louse was found in a human coprolite, dated 500 BC to 1150AD, recovered in Rio Zape, Durango, Mexico. [Reinhard, 1990] (Eating lice groomed from hair was a common method of louse control among many tribal cultures.)

c. 20 AD          A nit was found in a human coprolite, dated c. 20 AD, recovered from ‘Danger Cave’ in northwest Utah, near the Nevada border. [Reinhard, 1990]

100 – 800 AD  “The Moche civilization flourished in northern Peru from about 100 AD to 800 AD… They are noted for the elaborate painted ceramics and pottery….” [(Moche) Wikipedia, 2007] Ceramic figures from this culture (Eduard Gaffron Collection) are exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago. One of the figures is that of a “… woman with protruding teeth (an attribute of Mochica diety) and lice on body.” [Goldman and Sawyer, 1958]

100-1200 AD  The Anasazi (or basketmakers) occupied the ‘four corners’ area of New Mexico from 200 AD to 1200 AD. Eighteen natural mummies (with hair) have been recovered from caves in this region. Eight of these mummies had head lice nits. [Birkby, 1998] The Anasazi were ancestors of the modern Pueblo people.

600                   A louse was recovered from a human coprolite, dated 600 AD, found in Rio Zape, Durango, Mexico. [Reinhard, 1990] Eating lice groomed from hair was a common method of louse control among many tribal cultures.

1,000                Three mummies, heavily infested with head lice, were recovered from the Chiribaya cemetery located very near the seacoast at Ilo, southern Peru, at the mouth of the Osmore Valley. The mummies were dated to the Regional Development Period. 2 of 14 head lice from one mummy (CHB/1503) tested positive for ‘Chagas Disease’ (Trypanosoma cruzi). The 53 lice from the two other mummies tested negative. [Aufderheide et al., 2005]

1000-1250       A male Chiribaya mummy [#802-1371] from southern Peru “exhibited hair that was matted in scab-like material and was perhaps badly affected by lice.” [i.e. Plica Polonica] In the Chiribaya culture “… Men had a higher (lice) infestation prevalence than women. This is because men more commonly had elaborate hair styles that covered the scalp in braids.” “… The study demonstrated that the modern parasitological axiom that 10% of the population harbors 70% of the parasites also holds true for ancient louse infestations.” [Reinhard and Buikstra, 2003]

~1025  The heads of two Peruvian mummies of the post-Tiwanaku Chiribaya culture were discovered in 1999 and 2002 by Sonia Guillen, a Peruvian anthropologist. 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. DNA analysis showed that the Peruvian lice were from the world wide ‘A’ clade (type). [Raoult et al., 2008]
NOTE: Phylogenetic analysis of the Cox-1 mitochondrial DNA gene data from GenBank showed 3 distinct clades of P. Humanus. Clade ‘A’, consists of head and body lice, and is distributed world wide. Clade ‘B’, which only infests the head, is geographically confined to Europe, Australia, Central America, and North America. Clade ‘C’ is restricted to Ethiopia and Nepal. [Raoult et al., 2008]

> 1200             In 1935, the mummified head of a “The Old Man,” a Pueblo Indian, was found in “Adobe cave,” a shallow opening in the foot of the cliff near “Mug House,” a large cliff dwelling located in Mesa Verde National Park. The hairs on the head were heavily infested with nits. [Watson, 1940] The Anasazi or “Basketmakers”, who occupied this land between 100 AD and 1200 AD, were ancestors of the modern Pueblo people. [El-Najjar et al., 1998]

~1250  An approximately 23 year old female mummy was found buried in a seated position in the arid Atacama Desert of Northern Chile. She was fully clothed in an embroidered V-neck wool shirt, and wore a bandana on her head. Her hair was in two braids. She had lice. [Roach, 2005]

<1492  In a study of mummies from three prehistoric villages in the Moquegua Valley of Peru, Karl Reinhard noted that: “…One aspect of parasitism that differs dramatically among villages was louse infestation. Of 164 individuals from three sites, 146 were examined for louse nits, and 34 were positive. By measuring the density of nits at the scalp and on hair shafts away from the scalp, it was possible to measure how many people were controlling louse infestations at the time of death (more nits on the hair than on the scalp) and how many people had an increasing louse problem at death (more nits on the scalp than on the hair shafts). Twenty individuals had fewer nits on the hair in comparison with the scalp. Therefore, most people showed increased infestation around the time of death. The fact that eleven people showed a decrease of lice from the scalp indicates that the people had some medical practices effective in the control of lice for infested individuals.” [Reinhard, 1998]

<1492  The seeds of the Mexican species Cevadilla or Sabadilla (Schoenocaulon officinale, A.Grey ex Benth.) were widely traded by pre-Columbian American indigenous people. For many years, the dried, powdered seeds provided the crude drug Sabadilla or Semina Sabadillae Mexicanae which was used as a pediculiside. [Monardes, 1575] The seeds contain the alkaloids: cvadine, cevadilline, sebadine, and sabadine [Sayre, 1917]. Pereira described its toxicity in 1842. [Pereira, 1842] Felter and Lloyd have noted that because of its dangerous and irritating properties, it has been dismissed in practice. [Felter & Lloyd, 1898] However, the “1911 British Pharmaceutical Codex” recommended Vinegar of Sabadilla, 1 in 10 as a parasiticide for pediculi capitis. Sabadilla remained official in the British Pharmaceutical Codex until 1934 [Kress, 2008]

<1492  “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] “The water used to wash freshly harvested quinua serves as a remedy for killing lice if used to wash the hair.” [Krogel, 2006]

<1492  H. E. Ewing examined six pre-Columbian Peruvian mummies (from the Department of Anthropology of the U.S. National Museum). The scalps of five of the mummies were heavily infested with nits, but no adult lice were found. Ewing also examined the hair of twenty prehistoric mummies of American Indians of the Southwest (from the American Museum of Natural History). Ten were found to have nits, and of these, three were also found to have mummified lice. He claimed that the taxonomy of the Peruvian lice was slightly different from those lice obtained from the Southwest Indian mummies. [Ewing, 1924]

<1492  The juice of the leaves of Black Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum, L.) (*) was used by pre-Colombian American Indians to remove dandruff and head lice. [Hutchens, 1973] “The biochemical constituents of Indian Hemp are apocynin, apocynamarin, cymarin and rosin….. A wash made of crushed root can be shampooed into the hair to stimulate growth, remove dandruff and head lice.” [Stevens, 2003]

16th Cent         Two spontaneously mummified bodies, from the late prehistoric period, were found in a small cave near Pitchfork, Wyoming in 1976. One was wearing a British or Canadian military coat. Lice were present in the hair of one. [Gill, 1976] [Gill & Owsley, 1985]

c. 1500            “The Mummies of Llullaillaco,” the well preserved, frozen remains of three children, whose deaths were offerings to the Inca gods, were found near the top of the Llullaillaco volcano near the Argentine-Bolivian border in 1999. The resting ground, about 250 miles north of Salta, is 6715 meters above sea level. Lice can be seen in their hair. [(Momias de Liullaillaco) Wikipedia, 2009] [Luongo, 2006]

1502-1520       In Mexico, Montezuma II (1466-1520) ruled the Aztec “Triple Alliance” from 1502 – 1520. He accepted small bags of lice from poor people in lieu of taxes. These bags were stored in the royal treasury and were found by the Spaniards. [Zinsser, 1934]

Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas (1559-1625) was appointed by Phillip II of Spain as the first historiographer of the Indies. His official position gave him access to state papers and to other authentic sources not attainable by other writers. [(Antonio de Herrera) Wikipedia, 2007] “According to Herrera, the Inca ruler of Peru had ordered the poor tribes of Pasto, who had nothing else to give, to pay tribute in lice, not because he wanted them, but to make them acknowledge their vassalage. The Pasto Indians, however, objected to this mode of discharging their tribute, because eating lice was then considered an infallible remedy against sore eyes, and was recommended as such by the Indian doctresses (curanderas).” [Hassaurek, 1868]

1526    Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo (1478-1557) spent 9 years as the supervisor of gold-smeltings in San Domingo. In 1523 he was appointed histiographer of the Indies and in 1526 wrote “Sumario de la Natural hystoria de las Indias” (“The Natural History of the West Indies”). The book was translated into English and French, and was widely read. Oviedo wrote that: “…rarely are Christians in the new world bothered by the small pestiferous insects that grow in man’s hair and on his body. Because after we pass the line of the diameter where the compass needle changes from the northeast to the northwest, which is only a short distance from the Azores as we continue the voyage to the West, all the lice on men’s heads and bodies die, and as I have said, the Spaniards are clean and little by little all vermin disappear and are not to be…” [Oviedo, 1526] One hundred years later, Oviedo’s erroneous lice data were “verified” by an ‘Observer’ on a voyage from England to Jamaica (in the West Indies) [Observer, 1648] Oviedo’s observation was used by Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) to create an incident in the ‘Magical’ Boat Ride in “Don Quixote” (1605). [Brown, 2002] Hans Sloane (1660-1753), Physician to the Duke of Albemarle, traveled in 1689 from England to Jamaica and wrote that: “It is a commonly received Opinion by some ingenious Men that Lice dye on change of the Winds from being variable to be constant, Or passing the Equator; and that South of the Tropic of Cancer are none to be found, but this notion is certainly false.” [Sloane, 1707]

Oviedo noted that the soursop (Annona muricata, L.) trees were abundant in the West Indies and northern South America. The pulp of the fruit is edible, however the bark, seeds, and roots were used as a fish poison. Both the pulverized seeds, and a decoction of the leaves contain an unnamed alkaloid and are lethal to head lice. [Morton, 1987]

1552    The Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis (Little Book of the Medicinal Herbs of the Indians) is an Aztec herbal manuscript also known as: the Badianus Manuscript; the Codex de la Cruz-Badiano; or the Codex Barberini. It was written by Martin de la Cruz, an Aztec physician and translated from Nahuatl (the Aztec native language) into Latin by Juan Badiano (1484-1552). [(Juan Badiano) Wikipedia, 2009] De la Cruz wrote that: “The medicament for this (Lice on the Head) is the root of the bush zozoyatic (Schoenocaulon coulteri; Veratrum frigidum) (*) ground in water of bitter taste, the herb iztauhyatl, the fat of a goose, the incinerated head of a mouse, the twigs removed from a swallow’s nest, all of which you must then triturate, and pour the medicament over the head. … Zozoyatic, is like a small palm tree Brahea dulcis  [de la Cruz, 1552] Zozoyatic root contains cervadine, jervine, corvine and veratridine. [Ortiz, 1975]

1554    Francisco Cervantes de Salazar (1514 – 1575), the founder of the University of Mexico, wrote that the Indians (Aztecs) in the city of Mexico in New Spain used a clay (mud) called (in Nahuatl) zoquitl or quahtepuztli for dyeing hair very black, as well as for killing lice. [Cervantes de Salazar, 1554] [(Cervantes de Salazar) Wikipedia, 2008]

1565    Nicolas Monardes (1493-1588), a Spanish physician, published “Historia medicinal de las cosas que traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales” in 1565. This book was translated into English by John Frampton and published in 1577 as “Joyfull newes out of the newe founde worlde.” [(John Frampton) Wikipedia, 2008] The book noted that the crushed seeds of Semen Sabadillae were used as a topical insecticide against lice. The seeds contain several alkaloids (veratrine etc.). [Monardes, 1565]

c. 1569            Fray Bernardino de Sahagun (1499-1590), was a Franciscan missionary to the Aztec (Nahua) peoples. Based on interviews with Aztec elders, he wrote what is known today as the “Florentine Codex.” This is “ one of the richest surviving sources of information on Aztec life before the conquest.” [(Florentine Codex) Wikipedia, 2007] The codex contains 22 Aztec riddles. One of these riddles refers to a piojo (louse):  “ Que cosa y cosa, que se toma en una montana negra, y se mata en una estera blaqnca? – Es el piojo que se toma la cabezza, y se mata en la una.” This translates as: “What is this thing that lives in a black forest and dies on a white stone? It is a louse that we catch in our hair and crush on our finger nail.” [Pauer, 1918]

According to Book X of the Codex, Pulque, the cloudy, fermented drink made from the juice of the maguey (Agave americana), was used topically to clear lice infestations.

A tea of minced seeds(*) of the Avocado (Persea gratissima, Gaertner) was topically applied to get rid of lice and nits. The seeds contain amygdalin, etc.

The Aztecs also used Zozoyatic (Schoenocaulon coulteri; Veratrum frigidum) (*) as a topical pediculicide. Zozoyatic root contains Veratrine. “Veratrine is a mixture of cevadine, veratridine, cevadilline, and cevine. …These compounds are quite toxic and, thus, can be expected to act as rodenticides….” [Ortiz, 1975]

<1571  King Phillip II commissioned a physician, Francisco Hernandez de Toledo (1514-1587), to lead the first scientific expedition to the new world (1571-1577) to study the region’s medicinal plants. His findings were published in 1615 as: “Plantas y Animales de la Nueva Espana, y sus virtudes por Francisco Hernandez, y de Latin en Romance por Fr. Francisco Ximenez” [(Francisco Hernandez de Toledo) Wikipedia, 2007] He reported that indigenous Mexicans used maguey (Agave Americana) to rid the body of lice. [Davidow, 1999] He also noted that washing the head with a decoction of the juice of either the Ahoapatil of Yacapichtla (a shrubby herb) or the Zozoyatic Palm (Schoenocaulon coulteri; Veratrum frigidum) (*) kills lice. [Hernandez, 2000]

1577    Nicolas Monardes (1492-1587), a Spanish physician, published “Historia medicinal de las cosas que traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales” in 1565. This book was translated into English by John Frampton and published in 1577 as “Joyfull newes out of the newe founde worlde.” [(John Frampton) Wikipedia, 2008] The book noted that the crushed seeds of Semen Sabadillae were used as a topical insecticide against lice. The seeds contain several alkaloids (veratrine etc.).

late 16th C.      “In all the State of New York no instance of a bone comb has been reported earlier than about the year 1600, except in Jefferson county.  I think I have seen three from there, my notes would show if desirable, and the Jefferson county sites are now brought down to the last half of the 16th  century. … I do not believe any New York or Canadian Indian ever made a bone comb until he had European hints. … The early combs were simple for lack of tools, and the Indian did the best he could with those he had.” [Beauchamp, 1904]

17th C. Burr’s Hill was a 17th century Wampanoag Burial Ground in Warren, Rhode Island. [Gibson, 1980] Combs were found among the grave goods. [Philbrick, 2006]

17th C. Ten bone combs, made by Onondaga Indians in the 17th century, were found on the “Walker and Sealey farms” in Onondaga township. [Boyle, 1904]

c. 1600            Nineteen bone combs were found on Iroquois sites in central New York State. Most were made in the 17th Century, but four appear to be from earlier times. The early ones are of simple design with a few large teeth. [Beauchamp, 1902]

1616                 Guyana was first settled by the Dutch in 1616. [(Guyana) Wikipedia, 2007] The Amerindians of the Guianas used a variety of local plant materials to kill lice. Some of these same materials were also used as fish poisons(*). [DeFilipps et al., 2007]

The Surinam Akuriyo use the crushed leaves combined with the inner bark of “ito” (Pouteria melanopoda Eyma) as a body rub to kill lice.

Guyanian Amerindians used the juice from the bark of the Hernandia guianensis, Aublet. to kill lice. H. guianensis bark juice(*) contains numerous alkaloids including hervonine, nandigerine, actinodaphnine and laurotetanine.

The  French Guiana Galibi mixed the oil from the seeds of  Carapa guianensis Aublet with Bixa orellana paste to repell lice. Carapa oil contains palmic, stearic, arachidic, oleic, linoleic and linolenic acids. B. orellana contains bixin and norbixin as well as other phytochemicals such as salicylic acid, phenylalanine, and tryptophan.

Amerindians of NW Guyana used exudates from the stem of  “Haiariballi” (Alexa imperatricis [Rob. Schomb.] Baill.) to kill lice.

Guyanian Amerindians used a decoction of bark and leaves of Clathrotropis brachypetala (Tul.) Kleinhoonte(*) to kill lice.

Guanian Amerindians used a water solution of crushed leaves of  Tephrosia sinapou (Buch.) Chev. (*) both as a fish poison and to kill lice. T. sinapou contains tephrosine(*), which is a less active ichthyotaxin than rotenone(*).

Amerindians in NW Guyana used finely ground seeds of Mammea Americana L. to kill lice. M. Americana(*) seeds contain coumarins, especially mammeine.

Amerindians in NW Guyana used a decoction of the bark and leaves of Quassia amara L. to kill lice. This material contains the insecticidals(*) neoquassine and quassine.

The Guanian Patamona used a water solution containing macerated roots of “black hiariri” (Lonchocarpus floribundus Benth.) (*) to kill lice. The roots were also used as a fish poison.

1675-1687        A European-made wooden, hair lice comb was recovered from a Seneca Indian site near Victor, New York. [Hothem, 2003] page 236

1700-1760       The Gros Cap cemetery, located 5 miles west of St. Ignace in Mackinac County, Michigan was an Indian burial site during the Middle Historic period. One burial contained a small fine-toothed, tortoise shell comb of European manufacture. [Quimby, 1966]

Early 18th Cent  A female Aleutian mummy, archaeologically dated to the early 18th century, was found on Kagamil Island in 1874. Age at death was ~51 years. “ … The scalp contained numerous adult lice and ova of Pediculus humanus capitis, attached to the hair and visible to the unassisted eye.” [Zimmerman et al., 1981] [Zimmerman, 1998]

1705                 Robert Beverley, Jr. (1673-1722), a colonial historian, wrote that: “The (Powhatan) Indians also pulverize the roots of a kind of anchuse, or yellow alkanet, which they call puccoon, and of a sort of wild angelica (Angelica venosa), and mixing them together with bear’s oil, make a yellow ointment. … (which) keeps all lice, fleas, and other troublesome vermine from coming near them.” [Beverley, 1705] Carolina Puccoon (Lithospermum caroliniense, Walter ex J.F. Gmel.) grows in Virginia. [USDA, 2009]

1709                John Lawson (1674-1711) wrote that the Indians of North Carolina greased their hair with Bear’s oil mixed with a red powder made from a Scarlet Root (Ceanothus americanus?). “Besides, this Root has the Virtue of killing Lice, and suffers none to abide or breed in their Heads.” [Lawson. 1709]

<1770  The Tipai (aka Kumeyaay) Indians of Baja California smothered their head lice. They used the boiled sap of the mesquite [Prosopis juliflora] as a glue mixed with mud and plastered on the head for a day or two to kill head lice and to blacken the hair. They also used the ground seeds of mistletoe [Phoradendron sp.] , mixed with clay in the same manner. [Hohenthal, 2001] The mesquite sap and mud mixture (or mud alone) was still being used in the early 1900’s by the Yuma, Maricopa, Mohave and Pima Indians of the Southwest U.S. to kill head lice. [Hrdlicka, 1908] The Yavapais of northern Arizona used the mesquite sap alone to kill head lice. [Tull, 1999]

The Lakota (North & South Dakota) soaked their hair in a water solution of pulverized roots of the soap weed: Hupe Stola (Yucca glauca Nuttal) to kill head lice. [Buechel & Manhart, 2002]

The Ohlone Indians of the bay area of Northern California treated head lice with a topical application of a decoction (tea) prepared from California Poppy flowers ( Eschscholzia californica). [Geiger & Meighan, 1976] The Costanoan (Coastal from the Spanish) Indians of Southern California also used the poppy flowers to kill head lice. [Bocek, 1984] [Moerman, 1998] NOTE: The California Poppy flowers contain the alkaloids: protopine, chelerythrine, sanguinarine, alpha & beta homochelidonine.

The Shoshoni rubbed a salve of moistened, pulverized ripe seeds of the Crested Prickly Poppy (Argenone polyanthemos Fedde. G.B. Ownby) into the hair to kill lice. [Train et al., 1941][Moerman, 1998]

The Shoshoni also rubbed the mashed ripe seeds of the Western Columbine (Aquilegia Formosa Fish. ex DC.) (*) on their hair “to discourage head lice.” [Train et al., 1941][Moerman, 1998] Other Indian tribes from Montana to Wyoming rubbed mashed seeds of the Crimson Columbine into the hair to prevent lice. [Foster et al., 2002] The Indians of the NE North America used seeds from another variety of Columbine (A. canaensis L.) (*) rubbed on the hair to control lice. [Duke & Foster, 2000]

The Shoshoni and the Paiute applied a hot decoction of the root of Western Sweetwood / Sweet Cicely (Osmorhiza occidentalis Nutt. Ex Torr. & Grey Torr.) (*) to kill lice. [Train et al., 1941] [Moerman, 1998] [Foster et al., 2002]

The Navajo used the Cliff Fendlerbush (Fendlera rupicola Gray) (*), a perennial shrub found in the Southwest, to kill head lice [Elmore, 1944] [Moerman, 1998] The Navajo also used an instrument called ya bega (louse killer).  “This was made of a hard wood, tsftiiz (Findlera rupicola), and required five smoothly polished thin sticks, one edge of which was smoothly beveled and slightly sharpened, with their tips tapering to a point. Near the upper end each stick was punctured with two holes though which a cord was laced, and the ends crossed at the rear, so that in operating the sticks overlap and close snugly, as with a fan. A loop at the lower end of the sticks was provided to receive the hand and hold the instrument in position. In operating it the points were pressed under the hair, hard to the skin, and by pressing the lower ends of the sticks and drawing the two strings together, the teeth or beveled edges were brought into contact and crushed any vermin falling between them.” [Franciscan, 1910]

The Oweekeno of British Colombia used the berries of devilsclub (Oplopanax horridus Miq.), which is found in the Pacific Northwest. The berries were mashed to foam and rubbed into the scalp to destroy head lice. [Compton, 1993] [Moerman, 1998] The Haida of the Canadian Queen Charlotte Islands also used powdered devilsclub berries for killing head lice. [Turner, 2004]

The Cahuilla, Chumash, Pomo, Miwok, Yuki and Salinan tribes in California used an infusion of the leaves of the California Laurel/Bay (*) (Umbellularia californica) to treat head lice. [Immel, 2003] “The oils in California laurel leaves may produce toxic effects in some people,” [Stone, 1993] California laurel leaves “…contain Safrole, a potential liver carcinogen…. Although the Tea contains lower concentrations than the oil, caution should be used.” [Foster, et al., 2002]

The Northern Paiute Indians of Nevada used a boiled solution of the stems and leaves of  Winterfat (Eurotia lanata / Krascheninnikovia lanta) (*) as a topical anti-lice treatment.” [McGukian, 2006] Winterfat, called sisoobi by the Paiute, is a shrub found throughout the western half of the US. [USDA, 2006] The Blackfoot also used a ‘tea’ of Winterfat leaves to kill head lice. [Weiner, 1980]

The Paiute also used an infusion of the root of the woollyhead parsnip (Sphenosciadium capitellatum, Gray) (*) to kill head lice. [Steward, 1933]

The Heiltzuk of British Colombia mashed the berries of Western Mountain Ash / Gray’s Mountainash (Sorbus sitchensis M.Roemer var. grayi (Wenzig) C.L. Hitchc.) and rubbed them on the hair to control head lice. [Compton, 1993] [Moerman, 1998]

The Bella Coola of British Colombia mashed the berries of the Western Mountainash/Sitka Mountain Ash (Sorbus sitchensis M. Roemer var. sitchensis) and rubbed them on the scalp to control head lice. [Turner, 1973] [Moerman, 1998] [Foster, et al., 2002]

The Makah of Vancouver Island rubbed the pitch of the western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla (Raf.) Sarg.) on the hair to remove lice. [Turner et al., 1983] “The pitch or gum, often mixed with oil or fat, was used to prevent lice.” [Foster et al., 2002]

The Karok of California used a decoction of the roots of Great Valley Gumweed (Grindelia camporum Green var. camporum) as a shampoo to kill head lice. [Schenck & Gifford, 1952] [Moerman, 1998]

The Thompson of British Columbia used a strong decoction of the whole plant of the cutleaf anemone (Pulsatilla patens (L.) P. Mill. ssp. Multifida (Pritz.) Zamels) to kill head lice. [Stedman, 1928][Moerman, 1998]

The American Indians of Colorado used Nuttall’s Larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum)  to kill head lice. [Dawson et al., 1998] American Indians of Utah applied crushed Tall / Duncecap Larkspur (Delphinium Occidentale (S. Wats.) S. Wats.) to their hair to kill head lice. [Pratt et al., 2002]

The Pomo Indians of the Sonomo – Mendicino coast of Northern California, as well as other Indians from SW Oregon used the fresh bulbs of the Wavyleaf Soap Plant or Soap-Root or Amole (Chlorogalum pomeridianum (DC.) Kunth) (*) as a wash to prevent lice. Warning: The bulbs contain saponins that are highly irritating to the mucus membranes….may cause dermatitis.” [Gifford, 1967] [Moerman, 1998] [Foster et al., 2002]

Indians of the Western U.S. used a plant tea of the Clustered Broomrape (Orobanche fasciculate Nutt.) to kill lice. [Foster et al., 2002]

Southwest Indian groups applied plant tea of the Winter/White Sage (Krascheninnikovia lanata (Pursh) A.D.J. Meeuse & Smit) as a hot solution for head lice. [Foster et al., 2002]

The Cree Indians in the territory of the Hudson Bay, and other Northern Indian tribes, used externally a strong decoction of the leaves of Labrador Tea (Ledum latifolium, Aiton) to kill lice. [Felter & Lloyd, 1898] (Ledum groenlanddicum Oeder)[Foster et al., 2002] The tea leaves contain the poison andromedotoxin(*) [Sayre, 1917]

The Nlaka’pamux of British Columbia boiled the leaves of Vanilla-leaf (Achlys triphylla) and used the solution to wash the skin of people infected with lice. [Turner, 1998]

The Nlaka’pamux also used a strong decoction of the whole Long-headed Anemone (Anemone multiflora) to kill lice. [Turner, 1998]

The Okanagan, Secwepemc, and Blackfoot placed branches of Western Mugwort (Artemisia Ludoviciana, Nutt.) under pillows and mattresses to get rid of lice. [Turner, 1998]

1778                 A listing of goods owned by the estate of Chief ‘White Eyes” of the Delaware Nation included: 1 Quill Back’d Comb. [Hothem, 2003]

1779                 “One trade document dated May 10, 1779, was headed ‘Goods for the Delawares’ and listed “100 ‘dandriff’ (fine toothed) combs.” [Hothem, 2003]

<1782               A horn comb from the Tlingit Indian tribe of the North-West Coast of America was found around 1782. The comb was cut from a single piece of animal horn; it has 17 teeth and is khaki green in color. The short comb has a high back that is carved into a design where the neck, head and long beak of a heron bird form the back edge. The beak points down to the head of a whale in profile. [Anon., 2006c]

<1787               An engraving made in 1787 shows a Tlingit carved wooden comb from Goulding Harbor, Chichagof Island, Alaska.  [Anon., 2009]

Late 18th Cent.            “One of the new plants that the Seminoles encountered when they came to Florida (in the late 18th century) was the geographically restricted Angadenia berteri. These plants live only in the pine rocklands of Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, and their restricted range and habitat have led to them being called ‘pineland golden trumpet.’” The Seminoles used a decoction of the roots of the ‘golden trumpet’ as an external medicine. “…People in the Bahamas call the small shrub “lice-root”, and the name suggests how they employed it.” [Austin & Honychurch, 2005]

1883                 John Wells was part of a crew of 13 men who, in the spring of 1883, herded 4,000 cattle and 115 horses from Wichita, Kansas through the Badlands of Dakota to a ranch near Driftwood Creek, Nebraska. They invited seventeen Kiowa Indians for dinner one day. “Three squaws sat down together, and two or three papooses went looking for lice on each mother’s head and eating them.” [Wells, 2000]

1908                 Ales Hrdicka noted in his monograph on Native Americans of the southwest U.S. that: “The long, artificially twisted and matted hair of the Yuma, Maricopa, Mohave, and a few Pima (Indians) is of necessity more or less unclean and conducive to the presence of vermin…. These twists are from time to time cleaned by quite an original process. This consists in working into the hair a mass of fine river mud. The head is then wrapped with a handkerchief and the mud allowed to dry. It may be allowed to remain only overnight or be worn longer, after which it is thoroughly worked out, the hair being dressed as before. The sap of the mesquite may be added to the mud, making the mixture not only more effective to kill the vermin, but also to stain the hair (which in some cases is more or less sun bleached) a fine black, very much like the natural color.” [Hrdicka, 1908]

<1910               In early times, the Navaho Indians in Arizona killed head lice with a comb called ‘ya bega’, the ‘louse killer.’ “This was made of a hard wood, tsitfiz (Findlera rupicola), and required five smoothly polished thin sticks, one edge of which was beveled and slightly sharpened, with their tips tapering to a point. Near the upper end each stick was punctured with two holes through which a cord was laced, and the ends crossed in the rear, so that in operation the sticks overlap and close snugly, as with a fan. A loop at the lower end of the sticks was provided to receive the hand and hold the instrument in position. In operating it the points were pressed under the hair, hard to the skin, and by pressing the lower ends of the sticks and drawing the two strings together, the teeth or beveled edges were brought into contact and crushed any vermin falling between them.” By 1910, the ‘louse killer’ was no longer in use, except in a certain ceremony for dispelling filthiness.” [Franciscan, 1910]

1916                 A U.S. government pamphlet, promoting the health of Indian babies, recommended the following treatment for head lice: “Consult your doctor or field matron if you can. If you can not, a thorough application of kerosene oil will get rid of lice if left on the scalp for 12 to 24 hours and then removed with soap and water. The nits can be removed from the hair with vinegar. Be careful not to get either of these remedies in the child’s eyes.” [Anon., 1916]


©2009 by Harry A. Morewitz, PhD.  All rights reserved.