Why are humans the only animals to wear clothes?

I did a search but, amazingly, I can’t find this question having been asked before.

And yet the more you think about it, the weirder it gets.

All animals are perfectly adapted to their environment. Even animals that live in cold climates don’t take to wearing clothes - polar bears, penguins etc.

So humans must once have also been perfectly adapted to their environment and therefore didn’t need clothes. So they must have made some kind of conscious decision, at some point, to adopt the wearing of clothing.

When did they make this decision?

The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris, the respected Zoologist, suggests that we did have fur when we lived in the forests but when we came out of the forests and moved onto the hot plains we lost our fur.

This is because when you live on the plains you suddenly have to compete for food with the ultra-fast big cats. So the need for speed was greater.

But imagine however:

We are a highly intelligent species. Losing our fur must have been a pretty big thing. It would have been somehow passed on through the generations.

In some way, those early humans who predated us would have passed on to their young the fact that we once had fur.

I will quote “The Naked Ape”.

He is talking about how odd humans are compared to other species:

"Just how odd becomes clear when we lay out in a long row the skins of the one hundred and ninety two living species of monkeys and apes, and then try to insert a human pelt at a suitable point somewhere in this long series.

Wherever we put it, it looks out of place. Eventually we are driven to position it right at one end of the row of skins , next to the hides of the tailless great apes such as the chimpanzee and the gorilla.

Even here it is obtrusively different. The legs are too long, the arms are too short and the feet are rather strange. Clearly this species of primate has developed a special kind of locomotion which has modified its basic form.

But there is another characteristic that cries out for attention: the skin is virtually naked."

Assuming therefore that this “big thing” of losing our fur would have been passed on through the generations, it would have probably continued right up until this very day.

So what can we see around us that seems to rely heavily on ancient “known truths”?

Well, religion is one thing. Along with other global mythologies.

So, are all religions and all global mythologies simply the result of the fact that we feel guilty for losing our fur?

Is “original sin” basically all about the losing of our fur?

Bear in mind that stories become more powerful the older they are and this would be the oldest story of all. It would have been passed down in hushed whispers for the first thousand years or so after we lost our fur, and then would have attained mythological and, eventually religious, significance.

Until the story arrived at present-day Earth and this is where we are now.

All because we lost our fur.

Humans are not the only animals that garb their unprotected bodies in order to increase the chances of survival. Look at the hermit crab. It does not grow its own shell but instead shops for a used one among the detritus on the ocean floor. It is also known to “try on” several shells before settling on (or into) a final selection. I’m sure there are a few more examples of this exact sort of phenomenon.

I also don’t think that we humans have “lost” our fur. Many people exhibit an almost total loss of body hair where clothes come into constant contact with their skin. Even when we had fur the ability to use clothing extended our range and increased our ability to survive abrupt climatic transitions. Thus, there was no sudden “loss” involved but more of a gradual de-emphasis of that genetic trait’s benefits. A friend of mine has body hair that just about qualifies as fur so there is still some residual tendency towards this anyway.

The Descent of Woman, by Elaine Morgan, a kind of women’s lib book on human evolution, suggest the theory that humans evolved spending considerable time living in the water at the beach, and that we lost our fur in that period. She says that pigs lost their fur for the same reason.

Clothing allows us to live outside of the range to which we are best suited. We could (and did) live without it in places where it doesn’t get cold (think equitorial regions), but if we were to expand and colonize the rest of the world, we needed clothing. I don’t think that it has anything to do with a desire to replace any fur, since there are certainly many groups in different (warm) regions that wear no clothing or very little.

1)I could name a dozen species off the top of my head that are so miserably adapted to their environments that actual unprotected exposure to it would result in death. Try a google search on Caddis flies, termites, hermit crabs and naked mole rats if you need convincing. All these species will die if they are left unprotected in their natural environment.

2)Humans on the other hand have an amazing capacity to survive in an incredible range of environamnts without clothing. People survived quite well the worlds driest and hottest deserts, super-humid rainforest and in the sub-arctic conditions of southern Tasmania with absolutely no clothing whatsoever. Excluding the extreme high latitudes where exactly can’t humans survive without clothes?

3)All the evidence seems to suggest that people not only were perfectly adapted to their environments, but that we still are. Only those represenatives of our tropical species trying to survive above about 40o latitude (ie north of NY) actually require any sort of clothing at all. That’s got to be one of the most impressive ranges of any animal on Earth and one that can’t be equalled by any other species that I can think of.

4)When people lost there hair is open to considerable debate, but given the propensity for nakedness amongst numerous groups of modern humans we have no reason to assume that it occured in intelligent hominids. Since hairless, clotheless people can survive very well, particularly in the tropics we can’t assume that clothes led to hairlessness or that hairlessness led to clothes. Lucy herself could very well have been hairless and she was basically just a slightly dim chimp.

5)Even if hair loss did occur after human level intelligence developed, why would it be noticed? Such a change would occur over numerous generations and given the lifespan of early humans (about 45 years at best guess) no-one would actually remember their great grandfather being excessively hairy. Art developed well after the development of intelligence, has had a far more profound effect on how we view the world and what we are capable of yet there are no myths surrounding it. Surely this would be more likely to inspire creation myths than something as simple as losing hair. Similarly major changes have occured in the shape of the human face over the past 200, 000 years. Why no myths about that?

6)The example of lining up human pelts along side extant primates is hideously flawed. We are so unique because we supplanted all our competitor species. Line us up with all the species alive for the last million years say and we wouldn’t look out of place. If one species of bat or whale supplanted all others we’d get exactly the same problems. Unique forms of locomotion produce unique anatomical and physiological modifications.

Cough, splutter. :eek:
Pigs have a huge amount of hair. No they don’t have much undercoat (fur), but then neither do 99% of ungulates. Wild pigs have about as much hair as horses or cattle, far more than rhinos or hippos. Is someone suggesting that horses or rhinos were once aquatic?

Aside from that, this has always been one of the main flaws in the aquatic ape theory. It relies on upright walking on land for its primary strength, then goes on to suggest hair loss. The trouble is hair loss is only really seen in submerged mammals. Mammals like otters, water rats, capybaras and beavers which spend part of their time foraging on land, as early humans were assumed to do, tend to have more fur than average to protect against the cold. Hippos are the one exception but their size alone makes fur of little use.

Which is why you see so many naked antelope, baboons, and other grazers out there on the plains, I suppose.


“The road to truth is long, and lined the entire way with annoying bastards.” ~ Alexander Jablokov ~

Good point Triskadecamus, and one that I failed to address. Aisde from the pachyderms, whose bodies are so huge that hair has only a tiny influence in the tropics, can anyone name even one hairless savanna species? I’ve wracked my brains and I’m blowed if I can think of one.

Well, there were aquatic species of rhinos…Teloceras for one.

But hairlessness is not tightly coupled to aquaticism. Many aquatic animals are hairy, many non-aquatic animals are hairless. Not much of a correlation. Many many aquatic animals are covered in dense fur.

Pigs are aquatic? Um, no. And they are not hairless. Ever see a wild boar? Or even a tame pig? Sure, they have sparse hair, but they are very bristly.

Look, the Aquatic Ape hypothesis has been pretty thoroughly debunked. I’m sure someone can post some links, but no serious paleoanthropologist believes the theory.

But back to the OP. No one knows exactly at what point our ancestors lost most of their fur. But there is no reason to suspect it occured recently. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens goes back to 120,000 years ago. I sincerely doubt any kind of oral tradition about the shame of hair loss goes back that far. And there is no reason to suspect that archaic Homo sapiens was hairy either. It is commonplace for reconstructions of “cave men” to be very hairy, but there is no evidence for that. For all we know, hairlessness occured even before bipedalism, 4-5 million years ago.

Personally, I suspect that there is some sort of connection between hairlessness, bipedalism, and sweating. Human are the sweatiest mammals around. I suspect that bipedalism and sweating and thick head hair allowed ancient humans to absorb less heat than quadrupedal animals would have.

Opposable thumbs. Ever try to sew without them?

Umm, Rysdad.The OP asks why humans wear clothes, not why other animals don’t.

1)Opposable thumbs =/= clothing. All primates have opposable thumbs but they don’t wear clothes AFAIK.

2)Clothing =/= sewing. Foot coverings for example can be made by simply wrapping rags around the feet. Leggings can be made out of bandages. Cloaks and ponchos can be made by cutting holes in animal hides. All would be possible for most mammals with some work and for cephalopods, elephants and primates would be relatively simple. The lengths some birds go to to weave fabric for their nests is extraordinary, far more complex than is actually required for clothes.

3)Sewing =/= opposable thumbs. Various bird and insect species sew quite effectievely without opposable thumbs.

Hmmmm…elephants seem to spend an inordinant amount of time tossing dirt on themselves. Seems to me that this is a similar sort of thing as clothing. The dirt keeps them cool, keeps off pests, etc.

Chimps have been observed using leaves as makeshift hats/umbrellas during rainstorms.

Seems to me that “clothing” isn’t quite as unique as one might think. Just like language, we can see that there are precursors among animals, although humans have taken the behavior to an entirely new level.

It was meant lightheartedley, but since you bring up the following…

From Encarta:

Many monkeys have opposable thumbs and opposable big toes, which can be closed against the other fingers or toes to create a tight grip. However, the extent of this feature varies greatly between species. Old World monkeys are often remarkably dexterous and can use their fingers to pick tiny parasites out of each other’s fur. By contrast, New World monkeys lack truly opposable thumbs, although most have opposable big toes. Remarkably, one group of Old World monkeys—the colobus monkeys—do not have thumbs at all. Despite this apparent disadvantage, they have no difficulty climbing.

So, not all primates do.


Where would the rags come from? I suppose they can use a spinning wheel and a loom as well?


See above.


Mollusks can make ponchos? Simply? And how many jackals does it take to make an elephant poncho?


Ok, I’ll give you that, sort of.


Some birds weave. That I’ve granted. I’m afraid I’ll need to see a cite for insects sewing, though.

We, as a species, wear clothes because so few of us really look good without them. :wink: Blame it all on whoever came up with the concept of beauty.

And here I was, thinking clothing had a practical application. shows me eh?

b.t.w. some lapdogs are also known to wear clothing, and they have no oposable thumbs whatsoever.

oops, forgot this one


Well let’s not split hairs. The point stands, primates have thumbs, primates don’t wear clothes.

Leather, cabbage tree and coconut fibre all spring to mind as natural sources of scrap fabric that require no weaving ability.
However this is rather my point. Lack of opposable thumbs isn’t the issue here. Lack of ability to make fabric, lack of ability for that kind of abstract thinking etc. is.


No, what I said is that it would be physically possible for molluscs to make ponchos quite simply. The point being clothing does not require sewing, and an inablity to sew is not what prevents animals from utilising clothing. The earliest humans almost certainly didn’t develop sewing out of an interest in needlepoint and then use the skill to make clothes. Almost certainly clothing was adopted and then sewing was invented to improve on it.

How many ermine does it take to make a human coat? About the same number I’d say. Are you implying that animals don’t wear clothes because they can’t find large enough pelts to make clothes out of?

No, many if not most, birds weave. However some birds sew, as in they punch holes through leaves, pass thread through the holes and pull it tight.

Well I tried to find one, but doing a search on ‘catterpillar sewing’ or similar turns up thousands of sites for halloween costumes and instructions on how to make butterfly nets so you’ll have to take my word for it (or not, no loss).
There is a moth in the Amazon that pupates inside a rolled up leaf. Instead of the usual method of just gluing the edges together with sil it punches a series of holes through the leaf and then walks through them stringing a dry silk cord behind it. The cord dries and shrinks, pulling the leaf edges together. The cocoon is then sealed with normal sticky silk. Quite amazing to watch in time lapse.

I love these “The thing that sets man apart from the animals is…” threads

[sub]The thing that really sets man apart from other animals is that he is the only one asking “what is it that sets me apart from the other animals?”[/sub]

I like the theory that our ancestors were cursorial hunters - hunters that wear their prey down by chasing them for long distances (like wolves) instead of sprinting to catch up to them before you get tired (like most of the great cats).

Humans are remarkably well adapted to long-range running. Though slower than most animals when it comes to short-distance sprints, a fit human can jog along at 10 MPH or so for hours, which is something many prey animals can’t do. One of the reasons we can do that is that we have an extremely efficient way of getting rid of excess body heat over periods of extended exertion - we sweat a lot and most of our surface area has very little hair on it.

Let’s say you are a healthy homo erectus who has a craving for some antelope. You and your buddies find a herd of antelope. Some of you start jogging after the antelope, who watch you until you get close enough, then run several hundred yards away. This would work on a lion, as it would give up after a few hundred yards of chasing you if it didn’t catch one, and have to rest for a while and cool off. Your hominid buddies keep running after them though, and after a couple of minutes the antelope sprint away again, though maybe not as fast as they didn’t get a good chance to rest and get rid of the excess heat that they generated sprinting away from you. Repeat as needed - those hairless apes are slow but don’t seem to get tired like bigger, faster predators. Once your group of hominids starts getting tired, they will run past the herd and chase it back towards where they started, where their friends are waiting to take up the chase. It may take a while, but eventually some of the herd are going to become exhausted and not be able to keep up, and the hominids are able to get within a stones throw of their prey, and now they start chucking rocks at it whenever they get close enough, wearing it down even more. Soon it is no problem at all for the hominids to approach the exhausted and battered antelope and club it to death. You now have a nice big chunk of calories and protein to share with your friends. You expended more energy than a lion would have, but this technique for hunting will almost ALWAYS result in a kill, while lions give up hungry much more often than not.

Humans are hairless because it makes us better long-distance runners. If we had a coat of fur like a chimp we would wear out a lot quicker and gain little benefit.

We could be on Iron Chef.

One of the judges on Iron Chef was a fairly insane political scientist and member of the Diet, who had also written two books based on his theory that what seperates human beings from monkeys is that we wear pants. His website is at http://www.homopants.com He had an English language translation, but it seems to be gone now, so the site is only in Japanese.

Actually, the English language version is here.