For my personal research I study issues related to health and disease, so whenever I see something health related in the CAP collection I jump at the opportunity to do a blog post about it. That happened recently when I came across this seemingly simple comb recovered from excavations at Saints Rest in 2012, but I knew immediately that this was more than an average comb, this is a lice comb.
Now I’ll give you a moment to stop your skin from crawling when you think about lice. While lice aren’t something we tend to think about regularly today (unless you have young children), that wasn’t always the case. Dealing with pesky varmints in the home and on your body was just a part of life.
Lice have been bothering humans for a long time. Humans are parasitized by two genera of lice: one shared with chimpanzees and the other shared with gorillas. By using DNA to figure out when the lice diverged between the species, scientists are working to piece together part of our evolutionary history (Reed et al. 2007). Researchers have also looked at clothing lice to reveal when they may have diverged from head lice, giving us a better idea of when clothing when first used by anatomically modern Homo sapiens (Toups et al. 2011).
Archaeologically lice have been found in Greenland, Iceland, on Dutch combs, Egyptian mummies, and in Israeli cave deposits (Bain 2004). The oldest direct archaeological evidence of head lice are from a human louse egg recovered in Brazil dating to over 10,000 years (Araujo et al 2000). Lice combs (and the lice that come with them!) have been recovered all over the world, in including from sites in Egypt (c. fifth-sixth century AD (Palma 1991)) and Israel (c. first century B.C. – eighth century A.D. (Zias 1988)). They are also routinely recovered at historic archaeological sites.
Today to get rid of lice you wash all of your linens in hot water, apply a medicated shampoo to the unlucky individual, and use a very fine-toothed comb to remove any bugs/eggs from the scalp. This comb style is the epitome of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” as the general form has remained unchanged for hundreds of years.
Our double sided fine tooth comb was produced by the India Rubber Company. “I R Co Goodyear 1851” can be seen stamped on one side of the comb. A similar version is found in the 1895 advertisement seen to the right. 1851 is not a production date, but rather is the patent year for the Goodyear hard rubber vulcanization process (see Amy’s blog post on the comb from the outhouse for more info!). Combs were some of the earliest products made of hard rubber that were produced on a large scale (Fox 1899).
This tiny comb provides a glimpse into the health and hygiene routines of MSU’s earliest students. Campus records and diaries/correspondences in the archives discuss larger health related issues on campus (like diphtheria, measles, or typhoid fever outbreaks), the minutia of everyday hygiene habits tends to go unrecorded, but of course, this is where archaeology comes in.
Reed, David with Jessica Light, Julie Allen and Jeremy Kirchman
2007 Pair of lice lost or parasites regained: the evolutionary history of anthropoid primate lice. BCM Biology 5(7) – https://bmcbiol.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1741-7007-5-7
Melissa Toups with Andrew Kitchen, Jessica Light and David Reed
2011 Origin of Clothing Lice Indicates Early clothing Use by Anatomically Modern Humans in Africa. Molecular Biology and Evolution 28(1):29-32.
1991 Ancient Head Lice on a Wooden Comb from Antinoe, Egypt. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 77:194.
Head lice, Pediculus humanus capitis (Anoplura: Pediculidae) from hair combs excavated in Israel and dated from the first century B.C. to the eighth century. Journal of Medical Entomology 25(6):545-547.
2004 Irritating Intimates: The Archaeoentomology of Lice, Fleas, and Bedbugs. Northeast Historical Archaeology 33:81-90.
Araujo, A. with F Ferreira, N Guidon, N Serra Freire, Karl Reinhard, and K Dittmar
2000 Ten Thousand Years of Head Lice Infection. Parasitology Today 16:269.
The louse comb: past and present https://watermark.silverchair.com/ae54-0164.pdf?token=AQECAHi208BE49Ooan9kkhW_Ercy7Dm3ZL_9Cf3qfKAc485ysgAAAbswggG3BgkqhkiG9w0BBwagggGoMIIBpAIBADCCAZ0GCSqGSIb3DQEHATAeBglghkgBZQMEAS4wEQQM_PXl7w2JzGNcRujgAgEQgIIBblHIP7oC0UV__MYXk1ngxxH_mfI1Om7WjPa2ymveG4sEef7kE8KxycNlII2jRePwEKddbmMNzviLhWvWL5a_AckqfWODGLegXbp5VJ9csuSjkMmeFSUJkQJPp6NO45y_UhAKhlv-Q7Q351kBnnhhYBj_YzPmlcGMmnwZ_HEy1Px_REs4M4992RVH-c6oaXUghJ-rOC5YghpM-NzaYto9E-BurLp516x5-1fzFQu-t_bl_AHKy-TNwAoDCgR-nhPIgplNJqvAkWJbGU23oEgpfgzNtZf9KXInccVoYYxmX3ZCq0KXhnLrTzA5vUrPSAwWmqO5HHxU5pSYpaKZMHl1FLpNHVksDRxntJFucPgz5NfoBJ1y_z-6JD901x2c7xarbsEoR9pRXULxLTZClop8wO1q3vQ8EJQtF__r0J2xU2j6usWZGuCID54C3i94JCbwaHUpJSaKCr5pdtA00DSNjW4x4IjoPX9cBX3yqCWBnA
Fox, Irvine (editor)
1899 The Spatula Volume 6 (https://books.google.com/books?id=FhhOAAAAMAAJ)