Where Do Lice Come From?


Quick Answer

Humans play host to three distinct species of lice, all of which have been present throughout recorded history. According to Penn State University, evidence exists that demonstrates ancient Egyptians, Greeks and pre-Colombian Americans were plagued by these biting parasites.

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Full Answer

Lice are transmitted by close contact between humans. According to Penn State, head lice spread through shared hats, combs and wigs. Body lice are spread through the sharing of clothes, especially undergarments. Pubic lice are often spread via sexual contact, though they can also be acquired by sharing a bed or a toilet seat.

Though fossils of lice are generally lacking, it is possible to draw some inferences from the way they have coevolved with humans throughout history. Human lice are an especially rich source of information, as humans host three separate species of lice, unlike most vertebrates, which have only a single louse species. The human crab louse, for example, is known to have derived around 3 million years ago from a similar louse that parasitizes gorillas. This strongly suggests that gorillas and human ancestors lived in close contact during that period, according to Live Science. Head lice and body lice are more closely related, and molecular evidence suggests they parted ways between 80,000 and 170,000 years ago, when humans began habitually wearing clothes.

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