Where did lice come from?
In our clinic we hear this question a couple times a day. Moms and dads are at their wits end trying to figure out where their child had picked up lice.
The long answer is far more extensive than necessary and goes back many years–in fact over 5 million years. It is thought that human head lice evolved from head lice on chimpanzees over 5.5 million years ago. Around 107,000 BC, it has been recorded that lice split into two groups; head lice and body lice. The earliest research was completed using DNA technology, and has noted these two separate lineages. The fact that head lice have been prevalent for so long tells us that humans have been dealing with head lice for a very long time and will likely continue to face this problem for years to come.
Head lice seem to follow the historical trajectory of humans; about 120,000 years ago, there was a significant contraction in the population of humans as humans migrated from Africa. This reduction in number of humans mirrored a similar pattern among head lice. Scientists are studying whether or not the lice that traveled out of Africa mutated and became significantly different from the lice left in Africa. Preliminary DNA analysis of early head lice shows two distinct types of head lice: one type was only found only in North America, while the other was found in other places including Africa.
An actual head lice nit was discovered about 10,000 years ago in 8,000 BC; the egg was found in the hair of a buried mummy in northeast Brazil. Following that discovery, in 7000 BC, head lice were discovered on a hair on a skull in Negev in Northern Israel. The cave was carbon-dated to 9,000 BC.
Even The Ancient Egyptians Had Head Lice Problems
The timeline of head lice discoveries continues with additional nits uncovered on an Egyptian mummy in 3,000 BC. The mummy was dated to 5,000 BC. Interestingly, lice combs were found in the tomb, showing us that while many things have changed, the method of choice for eliminating head lice, combing, remains unchanged. The ancient nit combs that were discovered Egypt look very similar to the combs of modern day. It has been said that Cleopatra had very elaborate nit combs; as we see today, lice knew no class barriers. If you had hair, regardless of your grooming habits or socio-economic status, you were susceptible to getting head lice. Thousands of years later, everyone is just as prone to getting lice.
As time continued, lice were discovered in lice combs that were dug up from archaeological sites in Israel and dated from about 1st Century BC to 8th Century AD. In the first century AD, a comb with a louse attached was excavated from a site in Cumbria, England. Additionally, a nit was discovered on a hair shaft of a female whose body was preserved in the lava of the Mt. Vesuvius volcanic eruption in 79 AD. It is thought that Rome had quite a prevalence of head lice at that time.
Additional evidence of head lice in Egypt was found in the 4th-6th centuries AD in Egypt. Again, lice combs were excavated with evidence of head lice on them. Findings of lice in Europe and Asia continued.
The first major discovery of head lice in the western hemisphere was in around 1100 AD on the hair of a mummy from Peru. The first record of head lice in the U.S. is from early 1800’s in Wisconsin. A lice comb made from bone was found in the 1930’s in Fort Crawford, Wisconsin and currently resides in the Wisconsin Historical Museum. It is not surprising that in a location where people were in close quarters, such as a fort, there would have been a lice outbreak.
Lice And Nits Are Here To Stay
The bottom line with lice is that they have been around a long time and appear here to stay. They are very hearty. When threatened, they mutate. Today we see strains of head lice that are dubbed “super lice” due to resistance that they have developed to chemical pesticide shampoos. After many thousands of years, what remains for humans is to accept that lice are here, they need our head and blood to survive, and that to eradicate a case, we need to comb and pick each nit and bug from the hair.