Every day millions of people around the world encounter headlice. Today we are fortunate enough to understand the science behind killing and keeping lice at bay. For those throughout early history, this was not the case. Lice have infested heads for centuries, created terrible discomfort and inflicted pain and stress on a countless number of societies. Here’s a quick look at a few of those scenarios.
A Shrewdness of Apes
Since the first humans walked the earth lice have been along for the ride. Over 5 million years ago lice species divided into separate forms. One species that solely seeks human life, and multiple others that feed off of specific mammals or birds. Chimpanzees, therefore, have their own distinct lice that live on their skin and feed off of their blood. Because human beings are more closely related to the ape than any other DNA match, it is important to recognize that early primates and humans both shared one common problem-head lice and body lice. We use the term “lousy” today to refer to a feeling of discomfort or disdain. A louse is the name of a single adult louse. The phrase doesn’t be “nit-picky” dates back to these homo sapiens times when humans and chimpanzees alike would literally pick the nits off of one another to prevent discomfort and spreading. Now we understand that this is actually an important social bonding activity for Chimpanzees. Perhaps for our prehistoric relatives, it was as well.
Pharaohs and Lice
Ancient Egypt is a place of beauty, mystery, culture and yes, head lice. For many archaeologists who study this period it has become apparent that the problem was rampant. In fact, early records show that priests and royalty of this time opted to shave their entire bodies in an attempt to ward off the pests. Archaeological studies have proven that mummified subjects were found with louse and nits in their hair. Horrifyingly, some specimens had lice numbering over 400 on a single head. Imagine how rampantly that would spread in those times of no indoor plumbing or medical treatments.
Merry folk, Lords and Ladies alike harbored lice back in Medieval Times. No louse is a respecter of persons. They didn’t care if you had a court jester or raised a flock of sheep. Lice found their way into homes of the noble knights and the humble peasants. Researchers argue about the personal cleanliness of people during this era. Due to close living conditions, shared beds, short supplies of clothing and the limited medical treatments it is easy to see how lice would spread regardless of hygiene. One common folklore of this time suggests that those infected with lice would seek out a fur coat or vest. It was believed that as you wore the fur lice would be enticed down into the warmth of it and leave your scalp. Today we know that is quite ridiculous, but in desperate times we never know what people would’ve tried.
Early American frontiersmen were no exception to lice. Reports of soldiers quarters and early pioneer towns crawling with lice were common. Especially in areas where war was present and other diseases spread such as typhus, cholera or malaria. A soldier’s fort in Wisconsin was built was in the early 1800s. Archaeological findings there have discovered nitpicking combs made from bones of animals that were a few inches in diameter. These early methods no doubt helped with the problem but did not eliminate it. Soldiers or frontiersman had very little in the way of clothing or bedding. Often a man would own only one set of clothing and hardly ever took the opportunity to wash or change the bedding. In a ward of sick men, the problem would be especially deplorable.
During the beginning of the 1930s, scientists began to develop pesticides that helped to ward off mosquito-borne malaria. Fortunately, the pesticide also seemed to kill lice and their nits. This brought the problem of lice down to a new, more manageable level as over the counter products, shampoos and treatments became available to the general public. Over time, however, scientists has become aware of the harsh side effects chemical treatments can inflict. Modern methods of lice removal, including dehydration, are by far the most effective and safe way to remove head lice.