And what of water, that supreme ingredient of modern personal hygiene? And how do we account for the rise and ubiquity of hot water? Clean drinking water was of course the first human necessity: anything else was a luxury well beyond the norm. The long story of washing and bathing water began in the Neolithic at some indeterminate date, but probably (since it required extra resources and labour) during the later periods of relative prosperity and economic surplus. Later Neolithic technology seems to have risen to the challenge of water, with ingenious solutions to the problems of both fresh water and drainage. The large, square, stone water containers of the Late Neolithic (like those at Skara Brae) were the first form of domestic water supply, and were also quite capable of boiling a large amount of water when heated with hot stones from the fire. Water could be brought from the source in leather, pottery, wood, or shell containers;but the more convenient light and portable metal basins and buckets only start to appear in the records during the
Bronze Age. Bath-tanks, using even larger quantities of water for full-body bathing (not to mention clothes-laundering), seem to have accompanied the civic hydraulic sanitary engineering that was certainly one of the wonders of Late Neolithic technology— in Mohenjo-Daro, Knossos, Carthage, or Rome.
There was also a natural template for the human use of luxurious heated baths. Neolithic tribal groups undoubtedly discovered most of the world's extra-ordinary natural waters during their nomadic wanderings. Cold-water springs, rivers, and lakes might be innately sacred and healing;but the world's naturally heated waters must have been even more fascinating and awe-inspiring. There are hot springs worldwide in Africa, North and South America, Australia and New Zealand, Siberia, Iceland, Japan, and elsewhere. The planet's volcanic geothermal systems produce water in many different temperatures and forms, ranging (in Europe) from the 'sweating grottoes' in the rocks near the Greek thermae of Aedepsos, to the calcium hot pools circling the extinct volcano of Monte Amiata in central Italy, and the hot mud wallows at Dalyan in Turkey. It is likely that nomadic routes developed around the hot-spring systems on all continents (like the aboriginal 'walkabout' water-hole routes known to have existed in Australia), and the hot springs seem to have played a significant part in human settlement patterns. For instance, many if not most of the highly decorated Upper Palaeolithic sacred cave systems in the French Pyrenees and the Cantabrian Mountains of northern Spain are within walking distance of important hot-spring sites, also later exploited by the Romans.61
Japan, of course, is the outstanding example of an ancient hot-spring folk culture, and has some of the world's most lengthy and fastidious bathing rituals. In Japan hot springs even come up under the sea, as on the westernmost island of Kyushu, where the ocean reaches temperatures of 32° C (104° F) and where (in later times and as in thermal Iceland) almost
2 The Terme di Saturnia in Tuscany, one of many springs surrounding the extinct volcano Monte Amiata that local people have used for thousands of years, creating the bathing-basins. The chalky water is pale blue-green, and hot.
every house had a thermal bath. Remnants of Japan's past could still be witnessed in the early twentieth century, when the Kamchadales tribe still took long annual treks to the hot springs, putting up their tents and staying for several weeks.62 Similar ancient tribal gatherings and parties around hot springs were witnessed in nineteenth-century central Africa (and North America) where 'the inhabitants came in large groups, and the business of bathing, washing, and idling was interspersed with joyful scenes, instrumental music, and barbaric songs'. The same things happened in any Roman thermae—or Finnish sauna.
Artificial 'stoving', or sweat-bathing, may have been another of the skills that the Cro-Magnons took with them from place to place. Sweat huts were common throughout Africa and the Americas, and were particularly favoured in the cold northern zones of western Asia (especially Finland, Russia, Poland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the Germanic and old Celtic regions;a few ancient Irish sweat huts still existed in the nineteenth century). At its simplest, the person was wrapped up next to a fire; or covered with hot earth; or put into a sealed hut or tent, and steamed with hot stones and water. The intensive heat therapy relaxed the body and opened the pores of the skin so that the sweat poured out. A bunch of twigs could be used (as in the Finnish and Russian saunas) to further 'raise the blood', and stones, shells, or other abrasives used to scour loosened scurf off the skin. Cold air—or a sluice of cold water—restored the body's median temperature.63
Communal stoving or 'allo-stoving' not only made you well, it provided relaxation and 'good times'. Later on, stoving was particularly associated with spring celebration and marriage parties, or even with burial rites. The remarkable Scythian stov-ing ritual reported by the Roman author Herodotus was a riotous wake that also served as a purification ceremony:
After a burial the Scythians go through a process of cleaning themselves; they wash their heads with soap, and their bodies in a vapour-bath, the nature of which I shall describe. On a framework of three sticks, meeting at the top, they stretch pieces of woollen cloth, taking care to get the joints as perfect as they can, and inside this little tent they put a dish with red-hot stones in it. Now hemp grows in Scythia, a plant resembling flax but much coarser and taller... They take some hemp seed, creep into the tent, and throw the seed on the hot stones. At once it begins to smoke, giving off a vapour unsurpassed by any vapour bath one could find in Greece. The Scythians enjoy it so much that they howl with pleasure. This is their substitute for an ordinary bath in water, which they never use.64
People obviously dealt with their temperature problems in idiosyncratic ways, and some of them actually embraced the cold. There was a particular practice, or ceremony, of deliberately 'hardening' or training the body that seems to have been common among some northern European tribes. The Romans famously noted the Teuton or Germanic habit of cold-dipping their children and babies into streams; and something of a similar sort occurred among the people of the isolated Lofoten peninsula off northern Norway, in a ceremony observed by the Italian mariner Pietro Querini, in 1432. The round wooden houses of 'these beautiful and immaculate people', as he called them, 'have only one opening to the light, up in the middle of the arch of the roof... They take their new-born when they are four days old and place them naked under the peephole, remove the fish skin and let the snow fall on them to get the children used to the cold.'65
Modern cultural sociologists rightly describe the human body as an 'unfinished body'—a body created by nature but finished by humans—and, by following this line, have rediscovered all sorts of different 'social' bodies (gendered, emotional, regulated, dominant, reproductive, economic, civilized, consuming, narcissistic) with human culture imprinted firmly all over them. This would be an excellent description of the Late Neolithic body—except that it is usually applied to 'modern' bodies only. But human evolution may not be the one-dimensional, one-way process we usually take for granted. Humans are highly adaptive, and we often see comfortably bred urban populations reverting to 'prehistoric' practices and levels of awareness whenever there is a technical breakdown (just as other populations can rapidly learn to wear clothing, handle cars, or surf the Internet).66 The idea of the 'unfinished body' should perhaps also be seen as a very old and self-regarding, or self-conscious, species theory. Back in the Neolithic the word 'naked' was presumably given to people without any bodily adornments, in order to distinguish them from those who had, and certainly by c.3000 bce personal cleanliness had become an established feature of human society. As Bronze Age societies saw it, the extra 'polish' or 'finish' given by their grooming and adornments separated them from all other animals, and, as we shall see, they wore them with pride.
Was this article helpful?