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For as long as humans have existed, head lice have been persistent, yet unwelcome, companions. Evidence of our ancient connection with these pesky parasites includes the discovery of a 10,000-year-old louse found on human remains at an archaeological site in Brazil, as well as an inscription on a 3,700-year-old ivory lice comb that is believed to be the oldest known sentence written with an alphabet.
Scientists are turning to the blood-sucking parasite Pediculus humanus as a source of genetic information to answer questions about human evolution and migration. A new study published in Plos One sheds light on the genetic diversity of lice and its implications for understanding human history.
Marina Ascunce, a research molecular biologist, conducted DNA analysis of 274 lice samples collected from around the world. Her research revealed two distinct genetic groups that rarely interbred and a small number of “hybrid lice” found primarily in the Americas. Ascunce interprets this as evidence of contact between Europeans and Native Americans.
Genetic analysis of lice has previously led to significant discoveries about human history, including revelations about human clothing and interactions with archaic humans such as Neanderthals. However, there is still much more to learn from the genetic diversity of lice, and ongoing studies using whole genome sequencing are underway.
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