Today, hygiene is essential. We are still experiencing the discomforts, worry, and restraints because of the Covid-19 pandemic, wearing face masks and practising washing our hands several times a day for 20 seconds or more. But where did hygiene come from, and how has it become embedded in the minds of animals and humans?
The answer is tricky because, despite humanity discovering a lot about our ancient past, it is hard to decipher the truth for such a thing as hygiene. It is impossible to fossilize or determine where and when it started. However, we have worked hard to take a series of educated guesses.
What is Hygiene?
People from different professions and backgrounds will have different opinions on what they believe hygiene is. Most of us look at hygiene to tackle filth, germs, and bacteria to prevent ourselves from feeling dirty or becoming unwell.
Our understandings and practices of hygiene differ from person to person, as one person may not require as much personal bathing as another. Household messiness doesn’t bother some people, whereas others might find themselves cleaning and doing chores daily.
However, the official definition of hygiene is the “conditions or practices conducive to maintain health and preventing disease, especially through cleanliness”. It is a set of behaviours that we perform to avoid infection and there is a biological pattern to our revulsions for dirt and germs.
Hygiene in the very beginning
Hygiene practices date back hundreds of thousands of years ago and are believed to be a culturally transmitted idea. Humans are not the only ones who keep themselves clean – animals do too. Except, their brains don’t have anywhere near the same intellectual capacity as humans do, so understanding where animals learned to practice hygiene is crucial in understanding the history of hygiene.
All animals have psychological defences that fight parasite invasions that are both microscopic (bacteria and viruses) and macroscopic (helminths and scabies mites). Look at our earliest common ancestors: Earthworms. They are as old as dinosaurs and can detect and avoid harmful bacterium in the environment.
Another few examples are bees, who employ antibacterial compounds to prevent parasites from invading their nests. Ants, who get rid of fungal pathogens and dispose of dead or diseased elements by grooming themselves. And mother chimpanzees, who wipe the behinds of their babies just like we do.
Perhaps the slow process of evolution means that these behavioural tendencies became genetically prominent. Meaning, the genes of the animals who were unable to practice hygiene, and therefore defend themselves, were outlived by the ones who were able to. Consequently, the “unhygienic” ones could’ve been thrown out of the gene pool.
The Evolution of Hygiene
Hygienic behaviour is a natural function of the human psyche.
We only know so much about the cleanliness of the earliest humans, Neanderthals. Neanderthals would use seashell tweezers to remove hair, and early paintings from caves depict beardless males. This suggests that even way back then, the Neanderthals understood hygiene and probably enjoyed it.
Another one of the earliest signs of personal hygiene awareness was in 3000 BC. Old Mesopotamian texts discuss the idea of brushing teeth. Fast forward 200 years later, Babylonians created the world’s first soap from water, alkali, and cassia oil. It wasn’t until 1865 that William Shepphard invented liquid hand soap.
IIn 2000 BC, historians believe people figured out how to purify water for the first time – the simple process of boiling water to kill bacteria. Just shy of 300 years on, the first bath was made in Greece.
Skipping ahead to the 1700s, it appears that for some, hygienic efforts weren’t always necessary. Many historical figures reported barely bathing at all. This includes Louis XIV of France, who claimed he only bathed twice in his entire lifetime. During this time, the upper class only bothered to wash their hands and faces. Supposedly, it was more important to wash your clothes, making them as white and clean as possible, than your body.
It wasn’t until the near end of the 18th century that bathing and cleanliness became a necessity for some, particularly the upper class. This caused divide and separation among the upper and lower classes, and by the 19th century, it was easy to distinguish those who could afford to bathe and those who could not. By the middle of the 19th century, periodic bathing like we do now was increasingly common.
These are only a few increments in time that give us an idea of the evolution of hygiene, but there is still so much we don’t know.
The Germ Theory of Disease
The germ theory of disease was discovered in the 1860s by French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur, English surgeon Joseph Lister, and German physician Robert Koch. They discovered that certain diseases are caused by microorganisms invading the human body. These organisms are so small we can only see them through a microscope.
Even though they had sufficient proof for their findings, the severity of hygiene was not immediately apparent for many people. It was still another 30 or 40 years before surgeons realised they should probably start operating with masks and wear coverings.
Hygiene in the Present Day
Today, hygiene looks vastly different. We have our daily routine of waking up, showering, brushing our teeth and hair, and applying cosmetics and products that make us look, feel, and smell good. Practising good personal hygiene keeps us healthy and clean, and today, we have countless products that help us achieve this (unlike all those years ago).
Advancements in science, technology, plumbing, and architecture have initiated the worldwide spread of good hygiene, from antibacterial gels to air purification systems. We must take care of ourselves to improve our health and extend our lifetime, especially with global health risks such as disease outbreaks and pollution.
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