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October 06, 2004

Of lice & "men"

Carl Zimmer points me to this PLOS article titled Genetic Analysis of Lice Supports Direct Contact between Modern and Archaic Humans (my emphasis). There are two major lice lineages with a coalescence time of ~1 million years. One of the lineages is found in North America, while the other one is worldwide. The skinny of the tale is that the authors conclude of the two lineages suggests that perhaps one was incubated by a non-African Homo erectus population in Eastern Asia (this would fit within the time period that this homonid species left Africa and become separated into subpopulations), and that "direct contact" transmitted these lice to modern Homo sapiens who eventually crossed Beringia into North America. The lice data is most compatible with some sort of short-lived coexistence and interaction between the two human species. Now, the question is, how the hell do you get erectine lice? The most obvious mode of transmission is sexual contact (if you have a one track mind). As for the alternatives, I'm pretty skeptical that a non-sapient hominid species would have garmets you would want to steal, but perhaps on their way through East Asia our species decided that the archaic hominids were easy kills and the lice spread while they were being butchered before being cooked and consumed? Back to the sex though, Homo erectus is generally at least as tall as modern humans, often very muscular and likely hairless. Perhaps sexual fetishess are as old as man (Homo sapiens) and erectine females were live versions of the sex dolls that lonely men purchase today? Even if the two species were not cross-fertile, one could imagine that erectines would suffice to fullfill "proxmite needs."

Pubic lice is probably going to shed further light on these questions.

Related: Carl has a longer entry on this topic. Stephen Baxter's Manifold Origin is a science fiction novel where Homo erectus harems actually pop up. You have to read the book to figure out the context since it sounds pretty bizarre.

Update: PLOS has nice commentary that I missed.

Posted by razib at 10:30 PM