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Where Did Our Sense of Modesty Come From?

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As reported in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution (January, 2011), scientists have determined that human beings first began wearing clothes sometime between 83,000 and 170,000 years ago. Prior to that, our ancestors walked around naked.

Anthropologists speculate that clothes (i.e., the furs of animals) were first worn during early man's northward migration from the plains of present-day Libya, to the colder climates of present-day Europe. While clothing was originally adopted as protection -- to provide warmth -- the notion of garments providing "modesty" eventually followed.

And unlike the evolution of horticulture or weaponry (e.g., of clubs evolving into spears, spears evolving into bows and arrows, etc.), the concept of modesty didn't evolve. It arrived on the scene fully developed. Either you believed your genitals needed to be concealed or you didn't.

Not only did it not evolve, it did not begin en masse. By all accounts, the concept of modesty was introduced by the actions of one man, in one place, at one specific point in time.

The following is a dramatization of that event.

TIME: Summer, 110,000 years ago. Midday.
PLACE: The plains of present-day Libya.
CAST: Gort, Urk and Kril, three cave dwellers.
SCENE: URK and KRIL are waiting outside GORT's cave, casually talking. Both men are naked.

URK

I heard you captured a jybiao yesterday.

KRIL

Yes.

URK

Did you eat it?

KRIL

Yes.

URK

I would like to capture a jybiao today. (intently) Because I would like to eat it.

KRIL

Yes.

(GORT emerges from his cave, wearing a crude form of underwear. URK and KRIL stare at the garment in amazement.)

URK

Gort... what is that?

GORT

Something I made out of the skin of a jybiao.

URK

But why do you wear it? (gestures toward the sky) It is not a cold day.

GORT

No, it is not cold.

URK

Then why do you wear it?

GORT

I wear it because (self-consciously)... I don't want anyone to see my hrindal.

(pause)

URK

Why don't you want anyone to see your hrindal?

GORT

I can't explain it exactly. (pause) It just seems wrong.

URK

But every man has a hrindal, Gort. We all know what a hrindal looks like.

KRIL

(casually examines his own hrindal)
Yes.

GORT

It's not about what it looks like. It's about... not wanting people to see it.
(uncomfortable)
I must leave now.
(he walks away)

URK

(thinks about it carefully)
Maybe Gort is right... maybe we shouldn't walk around with our hrindals hanging out. (pause) Maybe only our wives should see our hrindals. (considers it) And for that matter, maybe only we should see our wives' yonis.

KRIL

Yes.

[end]

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net