The first clothes, worn at least 70,000 years ago and perhaps much earlier, were probably made of animal skins and helped protect early humans from the ice ages. Then at some point people learned to weave plant fibers into textiles. But when? The answer is not certain, because cloth is rarely preserved at archaeological sites. Now discoveries at a cave in the Republic of Georgia suggest that this skill was acquired more than 30,000 years ago.
In addition to the environment in which man is placed by nature, without any participation on his part, he creates himself another, which is generally called the “cultural world.” When we consider the human being in this cultural world, we see that of all its multitudinous cultural forms his dress is not only the one which is physically closest to him but also that which most immediately and most intimately expresses his relation to the environment. Not even the cultural forms assumed by man’s most elementary vital activities, such as nutrition and reproduction, are so directly and so constantly interwoven with human life and the human body as dress is, except as they express themselves through it.
In the Colours of Nature dye house, Vijayakumar Varathan is busy prepping a vat of indigo. At 51, he looks frail, with a tanned body made mostly of bones, but he runs to and fro, setting up an open fire where he’ll brew cauldrons of natural colorants made from plants.
He’s worked here for 15 years. But until his early 30s, Varathan mixed chemicals in a conventional clothing factory in the same region of southern India. There he developed a disease that caused layers of his skin to peel off. Even today, it is discolored. “It was pretty bad,” he says, in his fragmented English. “But I didn’t have a choice.”
Picture one of those ascent-of-man charts that depict a progression of profiles, from an ape walking on all fours to a slumped hominid to a modern human standing erect. What’s missing? The modern human is naked. No accessories!
We may not find a chapter on fashion in science textbooks but ornamentation and tailoring have played feature roles in our success as a species. On the prehistoric catwalks we creamed the Neanderthal competition on both functionality and style and went on to become the dominant hominid in virtually every climate zone on earth.
The millions of photos uploaded to social media are a massive untapped resource for studying humanity. But machine learning is beginning to tap this mother lode.
“Imagine a future anthropologist with access to trillions of photos of people—taken over centuries and across the world—and equipped with effective tools for analyzing these photos to derive insights. What kinds of new questions can be answered?”
This is the dream that has inspired Kevin Matzen, Kavita Bala, and Noah Snavely at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.