Where Do Lice Come From?

ancient lice combsLice are said to be prevalent even before the recording of history began. The earliest recorded presence of head lice dates back over one million years ago.

The fact that head lice have been prevalent for over one million years suggests that humans and lice have a long and itchy history together. This research is currently being used for the development of a time line for human evolution.

Fact: Lice have been found on ancient Egyptian mummified bodies.

Head Lice Treatment: Earliest Records

Head lice (blood-sucking insects that grow to about 2-3mm long) have most likely resided on people for as long as humans have existed

The earliest records of head lice treatment in the United States is from the early 1800’s. The Wisconsin Historical Museum has a bone lice comb from the frontier days (pictured).

Fort Crawford was not a notably healthy environment. Soldiers could expect a seasonal threat of mosquito-born malaria as well as periodic outbreaks of dysentery, cholera, and typhus.

The lice comb pictured was excavated from the site of Fort Crawford by archaeologists in the 1930’s documenting one other insect nuisance Fort Crawford soldiers had to endure: head lice.
After a series of floods during the 1820s which slowly degraded the structure, the Army finally abandoned the wooden fort and built a second Fort Crawford of cut stone on higher ground a short distance away.

Not until 1864 when Louis Pasteur definitively document the full developmental cycle of lice and other insects did the prevention of infestations begin. Head lice became less prevalent during the period of World War II (mid 1900’s). This was due to the use of the chemical agent DDT. This chemical agent was a powerful pesticide that was utilized to destroy mosquitoes that spread malaria. It also had effects on decreasing the populations of head lice.

Previously routine companions of people of all economic levels, pesticides and improvements in daily hygiene made head lice infestations relatively rare in modernized countries by the mid-twentieth century. Soldiers and visitors to Fort Crawford, however, dealt with head lice as a normal part of life, simply accepting periodic infestation in much the same way as they would have to deal with an occasional bout of influenza or a cold.

To manage an outbreak people used fine tooth combs to remove adult lice and their eggs (or nits) from their hair and then crushed them. Other treatments of the time included the application of an ointment of brimstone (sulphur) and lard to reduce the itching, and saturating the hair with ‘red precipity’ (mercuric oxide powder) to try to kill the lice. The latter treatment probably slowly harmed the patient as much as it helped, but doctors still frequently used mercury compounds during the early nineteenth century as most were not convinced of the element’s poisonous properties.

Fine tooth combs (like the Terminator Comb) and those used at Fort Crawford still play a large role in combating lice infestations to this day.

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Reference & Picture: http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/museum/artifacts/archives/002505.asp

Publisher:  Let’s Be P.A.L.S

Contributor:  Julie B

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