Head Louse History
For as long as mankind, Homo sapiens, has been around, head lice have been there living with us – and on us! Sometimes called “heirloom parasites” by scientists because not only have head lice been with us for millions of years, they’re ours and ours alone; no other animal suffers from the dreaded nits. Lucky them.
To be completely accurate, it’s estimated that around 100,00 years ago, lice split into two families: those that live on the body; and those that live on the head. Even before this split, lice had been a constant irritation for people, and it’s likely that since the beginning of modern humans existing, lice have come along for the journey.
Moving on to the times with recorded history, combs for dealing with lice and nits have been found in ancient Egypt. One five-thousand-year-old Egyptian mummy was discovered with nits in its hair, and lice combs were found in the tomb of a seven-thousand-year-old mummy. This shows that sometimes the best treatments are the oldest, and the basic lice comb continues to be one of the most valuable tools for dealing with a louse infestation.
Fast-forward another couple of thousand years, and archaeology throws up yet more confirmation of people’s problems with lice: a comb found in Cumbria, England, that dates to the first century AD/CE. Britain isn’t alone with its discoveries in this area, and many sites in Israel from the same time period have also thrown up lice combs, sometimes even with the remains of lice still on them. In the same timeframe, Italy also had its problems with lice, with evidence of nits found in the hair of a woman’s body found in the cooled lava of Mount Vesuvius’s well-known eruption, back in 79 AD/CE.
Europe and Asia had many many finds, and moving forwards in time yet again, the Americas shed new light on head lice history when a Peruvian mummy’s hair showed evidence of lice, dating back to 1100. Further north, and a few centuries further forwards, up in Wisconsin a bone lice comb was found in the 1930s thought to date back significantly.
Head Louse Trivia
1. Only humans are affected by head lice; they won’t infect cats, dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs, cows, sheep, giraffes, whales or any other animal you can think of.
2. Head lice lay their eggs on each shaft of hair, attaching them with a very strong glue. These eggs are called “nits,” and once they’ve hatched, the youngsters are referred to as “nymphs.”
3. Henry VIII used many treatments for illness that are strange to our modern eye. For jaundice – a disease that causes a very noticeable yellowing in appearance – he would drink a pint of beer every morning, for a whole week at a time. Doesn’t sound so bad, right? In fact it almost sounds like an excuse to start the day with a bit of a kick. Until, that is, you discover that the beer had to contain nine – and precisely nine – drowned head lice. It suddenly doesn’t sound so appealing.
4. Women suffer from head lice infestations far more often than men. The precise reason is not known. Some speculation includes the fact that women and girls often have long hair, which increases the opportunities for head lice to climb on board from an existing sufferer.
5. Speaking of women, the female head louse is noticeably bigger than the male. On top of this, the female louse lays a quite remarkable number of eggs, averaging anywhere from three to six eggs a day – for her entire life.