Disguises and the Origins of Clothing

Hum Nat. 2021 Oct 13. doi: 10.1007/s12110-021-09415-7. Online ahead of print.


Thermoregulation is often thought to be a key motivating factor behind the origins of clothing. Less attention has been given, however, to the production and use of clothing across traditional societies in contexts outside of thermoregulatory needs. Here I investigate the use of disguises, modesty coverings, and body armor among the 10 hunter-gatherer societies in the Probability Sample Files (PSF) within the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) World Cultures database, with a particular focus on disguise cases and how they compare with strategies of deception across other taxa. The employment of disguises-defined as altering one's appearance for purposes of deceiving conspecifics or other animals-is noted for eight of the 10 societies, with their use occurring in contexts of hunting, religious or cult practices, and war or interpersonal violence. Most hunter-gatherer disguises demonstrated clear similarities to cases of visual deception found in other species, with the majority of examples fitting categories of animal mimicry, masquerading as plants, disruptive coloration (camouflage), or background matching (camouflage), while disguises unique to humans involved the impersonation of culture-specific "spirit-beings." Clothing for modesty purposes (nine societies) and body armor (six societies) are also noted. I propose that strategic initiatives by individuals or groups to disguise or conceal themselves represents one possible initial pathway to the cultural evolution of clothing. There are likely multiple potential (nonexclusive) social and functional pathways to the emergence of clothing outside of thermoregulatory needs.

Keywords: Behavioral ecology; Camouflage; Cultural evolution; Deception; Mimicry; Origins of clothing.