Was pre-historic man dirty?

Has anyone written a history of how pre-historic, ancient, and medieval man tended to his basic bodily needs: cleanliness, sanitation, grooming, clothing, a varied and tasty diet, and so on?

I’m particularly interested in pre-history. We tend to assume that people in the hunter-gatherer stage of human pre-history did not care about these things the way we do. That they were content to be dirty and messy all the time. That they were indifferent to body odor. Human body odor is extraordinarily powerful, stronger than that of most animals, a fact we forget because we shower each day and use deodorant. But to the extent that we are aware of the fact of human body odor, we assume that people in the past didn’t care about it. But maybe—I suggest as a possibility—that’s all wrong. Maybe as far as back as we can think of, human beings found ways to reduce their smell, washing regularly, using natural scents, etc.

Think for example, of the Caucasian mummies of the Tarim Basin in western China. Those people lived four thousand years ago. Yet their beautifully made, colorful, cheerful clothing suggests that they cared a great deal about their appearance, and also, presumably, about their cleanliness and the pleasingness of their persons.

And if this is true of people who lived four thousand years ago, might it not also be true of people who lived fifteen thousand years ago, or of people who lived fifty thousand years ago?

Also, as I have written before, there are certain human biological features that by their very existence require human toolmaking ability, and thus culture. Meaning that humans did not slowly evolve the ability to use tools. Human beings had to have had the ability to use tools from the moment they came into existence as a species. Among all other mammals, for example, the hair on the head is a pelt; it reaches a certain length and then falls out. Only with humans does the hair on the head keep growing, which in turn requires the cutting and grooming of hair. Which means that as soon as Homo sapiens appeared, they already had to have the intelligence and ability to cut and groom their hair.

Similarly, the structure of the human rear end requires that people take special measures to clean themselves after elimination. Other mammals don’t have this need. Either their anus is flat with the surface of the body, and requires no cleaning, or they have the instinct to clean themselves, like cats. Therefore, as soon as Homo sapiens appeared, they must have had the intelligence and ability to find materials and methods to clean themselves after defecation. They also must have wanted privacy when defecating.

Another example is menstruation. Only in human females is the uterine lining lost through bleeding (overt menstruation.) In other mammals, the uterine lining is re-absorbed by the body (covert menstruation). As a correspondent suggests, if early humans had not possessed a strong aversion to large quantities of blood flowing down their legs, and did not have the intelligence and ability to staunch it, then it is perplexing why they would have ever developed an aversion to it and why that aversion is universal.

So again we see that human beings have biologically unique features that required, from the very start of their existence as human beings, the ability to handle tools and materials to meet their physical needs.

If this is true of hair grooming, sanitation, and menstruation, it seems that it must be true about other basic human bodily needs, such as cleanliness. Meaning that humans had the desire and the ability to attend to cleanliness from the moment that the human species came into existence.

Also, I may not be going back far enough. Assuming a commonality of the physical features discussed above, these things would have begun, not with Homo sapiens, who came into existence about 200,000 years ago, but with Homo erectus, who came into existence about two million years ago.

In conclusion, and contrary to our ordinary assumptions, it would appear that human beings in the pre-historic past—and perhaps the entire genus Homo going back two million years or more—had the same basic physical needs and desires that we have. Which boils down to: the desire to be comfortable. And they had the intelligence and ability to make themselves comfortable.

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Buck O. writes:

I’m not sure that I get the point of this very unusual post. Dogs and cats, like thousands of other wild animals, lick themselves. I imagine that all mammals either groom themselves or are groomed by other creatures who eat what lives on their bodies. Rain will eventually wash away the filth from our street gutters. All of these are natural occurrences. Apes are known to sit around in their groups grooming each other. If something sticks or otherwise adheres to a creatures body and it irritates them, they will scratch it or scrape it off. Some animals regularly bathe.

Any creature with functioning sensory nerves, must have a minimum level or threshold of irritation that they will find a way to attend to in order to get relief.

LA replies:

The first point is that such behavior in animals is instinctive, while human beings have to make tools and figure out techniques in order to supply their bodily needs. Without blades for cutting hair or some technique for binding and tying it, continuously growing hair would get in people’s faces and eyes and become an impossible burden. Like Ann Coulter, they would have had to keep pushing their hair out of their face every few seconds, leaving them no energy for anything but snarky comments, and they would quickly have gone out of existence.

Which leads to the second point. The various unique human features, such as continuously growing hair, require that humans also have the unique human ability to make and use tools, such as tools or materials to cut or groom their hair. Similarly, one of the things that gives the human body greater dignity than that of other species, that the anus is hidden away between the buttocks instead of being exposed on the surface of the body, also requires that humans develop ways of cleaning themselves after elimination, which animals don’t have to do. Similarly, the fact that only human females bleed during menstruation requires that humans develop ways of staunching the bleeding, which other mammals don’t have to do. These unique “inconveniences” of the human body make it necessary for humans to have tool-making and culture-making intelligence. The inconveniences, and the tool-making intelligence, had to appear TOGETHER. Man comes as a package, not as an animal who by a slow series of genetic accidents that were naturally selected slowly acquired human intelligence.

Sophia W. writes:

Amazing, I was thinking of the exact same thing yesterday!

(To be honest, I often wonder about this, so it’s just coincidence.)

I think that prehistoric man kept as clean as he possibly could. Obviously, hunter-gatherers lived as close to a clean water source as was safe. They drank from the water, and killed the animals who did same. Animals sometimes clean off in the water. Could primitive humans have done any less? Of course not. Washing in ice-cold water isn’t my idea of fun, but these were tougher people than your correspondent.

Australians who made contact with Paleolithic Aboriginals in the mid-19th century have described that they kept as clean as possible. It was a pretty arid environment. But they did cut their hair, and nails. Menstrual taboos were very strict. I’m positive that had to do with cleanliness.

I don’t think we’ve found any evidence of pre-historic combs, etc., but “absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.” Fingers do well as combs in a pinch.

Maybe they were just like us. Some modern humans are real slobs. Some are meticulous. Culture mediates and most of us fall somewhere in between. I do think that if a man went off on the hunt every day, he’d have to keep up standards, like being in a military unit.

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

I have found evidence for your hypothesis.


Best of the New Year to you.

Mark Jaws writes:

My only experience and background in this subject matter is a freshman anthropology class I took at CCNY nearly 40 years ago. I remember one discussion on pre-historic people burying their dead. I don’t remember the particular answers we came up with, but no doubt the sight and smell of decaying flesh had much to do with it. That ought to provide some insight. If people did not like a rotting body, they probably did not like a live, stinky one either.

S.T. (Sam) Karnick writes:

Excellent article, Larry. I think you’re on to something here. I found it rather odd and wrong when contemporary cinema started to depict the medieval era as horribly dirty and inhumanly disgusting. I found that quite implausible, for the very reasons you state here, and I thought that the old Hollywood way of depicting everyday life in that era (basically clean and tidy for those who could afford it, and less so but common-sensibly hygienic for those with less wealth) was a good deal more defensible. Then later eras began to be shown as being as appalling as the medieval era, and so on until one would think that even in the World War II era people had no basic sense of hygiene. I think that your observations here are an excellent refutation of this baleful trend.

LA replies:

Very interesting. You’ve brought out points that were half-formed in my head as I was writing it, but that I didn’t bring out myself. Thank you.

To expand on your point, for the last 20 years or so, most movies depicting life in any past era make it seem horribly uncomfortable, as though people were just miserable in their own skins. I think this is false. I think people always cared about being comfortable, and took care of their needs in this area. But because their techniques and ways of doing this were different from ours, we assume that they had no such techniques at all.

But there is an ideological purpose at work in such a false and unpleasant portrayal of the past: to make us hate and loathe the past of our own civilization, so that only “we” contemporary enlightened liberal people are any good. Only “we” are comfortable in our skins, because we are “free,” mainly sexually free. Everything before the Sixties was a repressive subhuman hell, as in the evil movie Pleasantville.

Our exchange also brings me back to the first sentence of my article: “Has anyone written a history of how pre-historic, ancient, and medieval man tended to his basic bodily needs: cleanliness, sanitation, grooming, clothing, a varied and tasty diet, and so on?”

Sam Karnick replies:

Thanks. I believe this trend requires a very extensive ignorance of both history and common sense in society to thrive, and we certainly have that. I also suspect that it is based on some common view of human nature held today, which seems to view other people (though not oneself) as inherently corrupt and in need of strong authority lest they destroy themselves. It’s a possible hypothesis, anyway.

I imagine some must have written such books as you suggest here, but I don’t know of any. It’s a really interesting subject.

James R. writes:

It’s one thing I haven’t studied but as you pointed out, the human odor is very strong and I can’t really imagine hunter-gatherers not doing anything about it, if only for the simple fact that it would alert any prey.

You also wrote: “the evil movie Pleasantville.”

I had the same reaction to that movie; it’s well-made, but deplorable; positively intended to alienate people from the past or even considering there might have been anything worthy about it, and overtly attacking the culturally and socially positive sitcoms of the previous era, while the ones we have now, aimed also at shaping children, wallow in the worst of human behavior and lower (degrade) rather than elevate people’s aspirations.

On the aesthetic level I think Pleasantville was well-made and well-acted but it is precisely this appeal that makes it all the more deplorable as propaganda.

P.S. I was a child in the early ’70s, the aftermath of the ’60s, and I remember just how filthy everything was—literally. As one can see in actual pictures from the times before the ’60s, they were pristine by comparison. Meanwhile, I remember being at boating parties my parents took us too after races, and there was literally dried vomit on the carpets of some of the houses they were held at; again this being the early ’70s, the immediate afterglow of the ’60s.

And there was litter and trash everywhere on the university campus where my mother was taking classes at the time (she often took me along to class because I was a quiet child and me going along was better than me being left in childcare); one of the distinct impressions I still have was how dirty everything was.

But today “they” want to portray the time before all of this as an era of filthiness, as unclean as well as repressive, when the reality was the reverse.

The ’70s was a slum of a decade; you probably have even more vivid memories of it than I do.

LA replies:

I lived in Colorado during most of the 1970s and it was clean.

When I moved to New York City, in 1978, it had gotten past the worst of the decade and was on its way back.

Brandon F. writes:

What a great post. Another point I would add. Female humans are the only mammal that have breasts year round once they are developed. Female humans are also capable of becoming pregnant year round of course. The constant arousal factor here could be an incentive for moral intelligence and modesty with respect to covering. Not to mention keeping the young men focused on more important things. [LA replies: A story I’ve told before. Once when I was in Georgia for a conference I was amazed by the beauty of the women and I half-joked to Sam Francis that the reason Southerners are so religious is that they need to be, to deal with the constant temptation.]

One interesting note on human stench. There is a site preserved near where I live where there was a frontier fort in the 18th Century. At a presentation we went to at a reconstruction of the fort and the guide explained that the men would stand close to open fires to let the smoke permeate their clothing to cover their smell. This could have been something done for eons.

Also, on ancient cleanliness, I found this little tid-bit.

Prehistoric Dental Hygiene: Even Neanderthals Brush Their Teeth!
By Alex in Health, Science & Tech on Sep 19, 2007 at 5:02 am

If your children don’t want to brush their teeth, just tell them this: even Neanderthals did it!

Two molar teeth of around 63,400 years old show that Neanderthal predecessors of humans may have been dental hygiene fans, the Web site of newspaper El Pais reported on Tuesday.

The teeth have “grooves formed by the passage of a pointed object, which confirms the use of a small stick for cleaning the mouth,” Paleontology Professor Juan Luis Asuarga told reporters, presenting an archaeological find in Madrid.

Judith H. writes:

Your article on pre-historic man’s cleanliness has come just in time to remind me that I must clean this dusty, cat-hair infested, unopened-mail cluttered house. Not to mention dirty laundry and flagstones popping up in the backyard providing hiding places for very small creatures. So I have my work cut out for for the new year.

Don’t forget too that the “paleo” diet is back in vogue, at least among some alternative doctors—animal fat (in reasonable quantity) is good for you and necessary for good health since it provides cholesterol which in turn allows for the production of life-saving hormones. Pre-historic man grew strong on meat and on non-toxic water, and raw fruits and vegetables. Here is a short passage from an alternative medicine website (registration required):

During the Paleolithic period, many thousands of years ago, people ate primarily vegetables, fruit, nuts, roots and meat—and a wide variety of it.

Today, these staples have been largely replaced with refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, cereal, bread, potatoes and pasteurized milk products … and a much narrower selection of fruits, vegetables, roots and nuts.

While we may consider ourselves to be at the pinnacle of human development, our modern food manufacturing processes have not created a race of super-humans in possession of great health and longevity.

Quite the contrary …

Humans today suffer more chronic and debilitating diseases than ever before. And there can be little doubt that our food choices play a major role in this development.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 31, 2011 11:57 AM | Send

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