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.
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.
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.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.Sophia W. writes:
Amazing, I was thinking of the exact same thing yesterday!Thomas Bertonneau writes:
I have found evidence for your hypothesis.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.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.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.LA replies:
I lived in Colorado during most of the 1970s and it was clean.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.]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.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 31, 2011 11:57 AM | Send