2nd June 2021. Clothing | Children

The invention of clothing; rights not risk in caring for children

Welcome to Just Two Things, which I try to publish daily, five days a week. Some links may also appear on my blog from time to time. Links to the main articles are in cross-heads as well as the story.

#1: The invention of clothing

One of the mysteries of early human history is why we stopped being hunter-gatherers and started farming instead. By all accounts, hunter-gathering was an easier lifestyle with fewer adverse side-effects, as Jared Diamond noted some years ago:

In particular, recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.

So it’s intriguing to read an account in Aeon that suggests that the problem that agriculture was designed to fix was not feeding ourselves but keeping warm.

(The oldest known pair of trousers belonged to nomadic horsemen in Central Asia 3,000 years ago. Photo: M. Wagner/ German Archaeological Institute)

Like all pieces in Aeon it is long and detailed, but there were a few elements of this account that seemed convincing to me. Clothing evolved quite rapidly, it seems, in response to the plummeting temperatures of the Ice Age, and allowed humans to live quite a long way north—for example, 15,000 years ago, crossing the land bridge that then existed across the Bering Straits. On the other hand, because clothing itself tends to decay, we have little evidence of Paleolithic clothing. What we can know has to be deduced from other evidence. 

The story that Ian Gilligan tells in the piece is around the evolution of the use of clothing for thermal reasons in terms of both increasing the number of layers, and increasing the level of fitting or tailoring to enclose the body, notably the limbs:

Complex clothes required scrapers but also hide-cutting tools, called blades, to cut the hides into regular shapes and make the cylinders for sleeves and leggings. The separate shapes had to be sewn together carefully, hence we start to find more dedicated hide-piercing tools, called awls, later refined into the iconic ice-age clothing tool, the eyed needle.

Intriguingly, some of these technologies disappear in some places during warmer periods. There’s also new evidence about the timing of clothing from looking at records of the evolution of lice—and the point at which clothing lice emerge in the record.

But how does this fit into our understanding of the history of agriculture?

Well, as the earth warmed at the end of the Pleistocene, the climate also became wetter and more humid:

Adapting to these moist conditions, people shifted to making their clothes with fabrics woven from natural fibres such as wool and cotton. Compared with leathers and furs, fabrics are better at managing moisture. The woven structure is permeable to air and moisture and, in warm climates, wind penetration can help to cool the body. ... The warm and wet period after the last ice age, called the Holocene, coincides with a momentous transition, the beginning of the Neolithic era when people started to engage in agriculture.

Gilligan acknowledges that his hypothesis that clothes prompted the invention of agriculture does represent a radical departure from conventional wisdom. At the same time, a lot of our previous thinking on the transition to agriculture has been revised:

The popular notion of agriculture as a superior food strategy reflects anachronistic perceptions of foraging as a harsh, precarious lifestyle. In contrast, archaeologists have now recognised the serious risks of famine and malnutrition in the early farming communities, and confirmed the relative ease of traditional foraging lifestyles, even in marginal environments such as Australian deserts.... Similarly, evidence from northern Europe suggests that forager communities were inclined to resist the spread of agriculture. Indeed, the revised view of foraging makes it hard to see why prehistoric hunter-gatherers would ever start with agriculture solely to obtain food, and maybe they never did. 

Early crops were low quality, and not well-suited for human consumption. But they fed animals well enough, and at the same time as agriculture emerges we see for the first time the herding of sheep and goats—effectively a renewable fibre resource. Sheep and goats were more valuable for fibre than they were being grown for meat. In Papua New Guinea, similarly, turkeys were grown primarily for their feathers. 

Directly and indirectly, textiles tipped the balance in favour of agriculture. Food production did become a dominant feature, with more plant and animal species domesticated to feed humans.... An alternative textile scenario might sound implausible, requiring a revolution in how we look at the agricultural revolution. Yet this scenario does echo the analogous role of textiles in the Industrial Revolution, a pivotal point in history when factory-style production of cotton textiles was an impetus for industrialisation.

#2: Rights not risk

There’s a short post by Mariella Neagu on the OUP blog that suggests that the models that we use to frame the care of children are a source of harm. It’s prompted by Scotland’s decision to incorporate into its relevant legislation the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). 

The fundamental difference between a human rights approach and psychologised one, in which children are seen through their adversity rather than through their potential, is that the former brings care to the moral domain. Such an approach places children’s dignity (and their voice) at the heart of the care system. This has a number of implications. A rights-based approach can be at odds with systems dominated by a “risk” culture that regard children as potential victims of abuse (and adults as potential perpetrators) because these tend to overprotect children and limit their participation in decisions that affect their everyday life.

There are some important consequences from this—one being that a rights based approach improves the psychological outcomes for the child. As Neagu notes, children raised in low risk environments that are also over-protective are more likely to become anxious adults or show signs of challenging behaviour. This is broadly because—my summary, not here—they are less likely to learn to manage the limits of their behaviour for themselves. Their self-esteem is also likely to be lower. 

In order to be a good parent, the state must aim and act similarly to good parents: helping children to gradually develop their autonomy even if that involves making mistakes; ensuring that they are raised in fairness, with unconditional support and respect; and nurturing their talents.... The safest way to protect children against abuse is not to ban carers from hugging children they care for but to help children recognise abuse and create complaint mechanisms they trust in, where they feel confident to speak about it if necessary. Care must be an empowering experience and not a stigmatising one. 

Two quick further points from me here.

The first is that—as with, for example, cycling—we may be measuring the easy things and not the hard things. This is often an effect of risk-based models. We see the cyclist injured in a collision, but we don’t see the public health improvements from the hundreds of cyclists who don’t get hit by cars.

Second, since devolution, Scotland has become a innovation leader in some areas of public policy—the choices it makes are often a weak signal of broader change. 


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