Unraveling the History of Human Hair

iStock/ValuaVitaly
iStock/ValuaVitaly

Be it brown or blond, in a straight or naturally curly hair style, the hair that grows from our heads is a fundamental aspect of the human appearance. Our multitude of hair types is so ubiquitous that it’s actually easy to ignore how weird hair is—and not in the sense that your hair style might be on the wrong side of edgy.

“When it comes to human uniqueness, people come up with all kinds of stuff—culture, intelligence, language,” Tina Lasisi, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Penn State University, tells Mental Floss. “[But] we’re the only mammals that have hairless bodies and hairy scalps.”

On the surface, our hair types are simple enough. Like fingernails, hair is made mostly of the protein keratin. It can survive for millennia under the right conditions—think Ötzi, the 5300-year-old iceman whose clothing, body, and hair were all preserved when he was frozen in a glacier. In warmer, wetter, more acidic environments, hair can degrade within weeks.

But that’s only what hair is. Why we have different hair types and how they came to be is a mystery that scientists are just now beginning to untangle.

Why Do We Have Hair on Our Heads?

Mother holding child with a braided hairstyle
iStock/Kali9

Some researchers have tried on various hypotheses to explain the patterns of hair growth in Homo sapiens and why they differ so dramatically from our close relatives, like chimpanzees. Losing body hair meant we could sweat more, a cooling mechanism that “helped to make possible the dramatic enlargement of our most temperature-sensitive organ, the brain,” writes anthropologist Nina Jablonski in Scientific American. Other researchers hypothesized that the hair remaining on human heads helped hominins regulate body temperature when they became bipedal and started traveling long distances. Basically, scalp hair created a kind of built-in hat.

Hair doesn’t usually stick around for hundreds of thousands of years the way fossilized bones do. If scientists want to answer the question of how our hair evolved from full-body fur, they have to explore the human genome—and Lasisi found that surprisingly few have done so. That’s partially because of the time and expense of conducting genomic analysis to pinpoint which genes affect the production of hair. But it’s also because it wasn’t a question posed by earlier (male) scientists, according to Lasisi.

“They were like, ‘Oh yeah, hair, it’s sexy on women, it’s probably sexual selection.’ But there was no effort to look into it as a unique human trait because they were more interested in our large brains, bipedalism, and whatnot,” Lasisi says.

How Did Different Hair Types Come To Be?

Blond woman facing forsythia bush
iStock/lprogressman

Even the lack of categorization for hair types is telling. Contrary to what your shampoo bottle may say, there is no real classification system for different hair types. At least not yet.

“Most mammals have straight hair. Only human hair [in African and Melanesian populations] has this tightly coiled configuration. We tend to talk about hair as straight, wavy, curly, in some cases frizzy,” Lasisi says. “But it’s as if we were trying to do genetic studies on height saying, there are short people, medium people, and tall people, now find what genes are related to that.”

In other words, before she could even attempt to answer the question of which genes control the texture and color of hair, Lasisi had to figure out a system for defining those hair textures and colors. Lasisi set about creating a classification system that she eventually hopes to publish, which relies on microscopic analysis of curl radius and measuring precise amounts of melanin in the hair. She then tried to answer the first of many questions: Whether tightly coiled African hair evolved in response to the hot environment. While that research is still ongoing, she says the results may indicate something counterintuitive—the thicker the hair, the better insulator it is from heat.

What's the oldest human hair ever found?

Woman wearing African jewelry viewed from the back
iStock/FernandoPodolski

On the rare occasions when hair is preserved in the fossil record, it can be an incredible source of information about our ancestors’ health and behavior. In 2009, Lucinda Backwell and colleagues described the discovery of what appeared to be human hair in fossilized hyena poop (a.k.a. coprolites) from more than 200,000 years ago—the oldest evidence of human hair to date. Five years later, Backwell and others followed that study with an examination of 48 hairs from hyena coprolites that identified several mammalian species. The presence of all those types of hair mean the hyenas were scavenging from many different remains, including humans.

“In the case of the human hairs in the coprolite, they told us a lot, because there were no bones,” Backwell, an anthropologist with the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and Instituto Superior des Estudios Sociales, CONICET in Argentina, tells Mental Floss by email. They revealed that humans shared the environment with big herbivores like impala, zebra, kudu, and warthogs in southern Africa 200,000 years ago. Unfortunately for scientists, all of the keratin in that hair sample had been replaced by calcium carbonate that didn’t include any DNA. “The first prize would be to extract DNA and identify whether the hair belonged to a modern or archaic human, or even someone like Homo naledi, with its primitive features and young age,” Backwell said. In addition to helping identify the precise species of hominin, DNA from a hair sample like this could go a long way in telling more about different species’ relationship to one another.

Backwell has also studied human hair found in a high-altitude cave site in Argentina, one of the best environments for preserving hair because it’s “cool, dry, dark, and with a neutral pH,” she says. Like the coprolite hairs in South Africa, dating and identifying hairs in Argentina will help Backwell and others understand the spread of humans across the world.

How Can Hair Shed Light on History?

Woman with brown wavy hair facing the ocean
iStock/lprogressman

When people are exposed to substances in the environment, their hair will retain some of the chemical signatures of those substances. Hair found in ice, in amber, and on mummies from arid regions around the world has allowed researchers to learn fascinating details about the inhabitants of particular regions.

In 2013, archaeologists at the University of Chile analyzed 56 mummy samples found in northern Chile. Using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (a tool that identifies different substances in a sample—and also happens to be used for drug testing), they found that people had smoked nicotine-containing plants continuously from 100 BCE to 1450 CE. “Overall, these results suggest that consumption of nicotine was performed by members of the society at large, irrespective of their social and wealth status,” the researchers wrote in their study.

Another group of archaeologists collected hair samples from 40 mummies found in Peru, Chile, and Egypt to analyze pre-industrial mercury concentrations across the world, ranging in time from 5000 BCE to 1300 CE [PDF]. Their results, published in 2018, indicated much lower levels of mercury in the environment than in the industrial era. Researchers also discovered that each group’s diet determined the actual level of mercury exposure—the Chilean mummies had higher concentrations from their seafood-based diet, while the Egyptians, who ate land animals, had the lowest.

For now, the mystery of hair’s evolution remains partially unsolved. But the next time you’re at the salon, look in the mirror and remember: Hair is part of what makes us human.

Lost Your Wallet? You Might Be More Likely to Get It Back If There's Cash Inside

iStock/tzahiV
iStock/tzahiV

Few things can incite more panic than discovering you’ve lost a wallet or purse containing money, identification, credit cards, and/or keys. You wonder if anyone will find it—and if they do, whether they’ll decide to retain your cash using the playground ethics of the "finders keepers" rule.

An ambitious new study in the journal Science has provided at least a partial answer. If your wallet has cash inside, it’s actually more likely for people to return it than if it didn’t have any.

Researchers at the University of Michigan conducted an exercise in civic honesty, dispatching 13 assistants to 355 cities in 40 countries across the globe. At each destination, the assistants were armed with clear wallets that held things like grocery lists and business cards along with an email address. Some wallets had no money inside. Others contained about $13.45 in the local currency. The assistants gave the wallets to employees at banks, hotels, post offices, museums, and police stations, explaining they had “found” the wallet and were in too big of a hurry to contact the owner themselves. They passed the responsibility to the person receiving the wallet. All told, 17,303 wallets were left as proverbial bait to see what the employees might do.

Of the wallets without cash inside, researchers received an email seeking to return roughly 40 percent of them. About 51 percent of the employees attempted to return the wallets containing $13.45 in cash.

These percentages fluctuated by country. In Denmark, 82 percent of wallets with cash were returned. In the United States, the figure was 57 percent. When researchers upped the stakes by including $94.15 in wallets for areas in the U.S., Britain, and Poland, the return rate went up to 72 percent.

It’s difficult to infer motivations for why people returned wallets with more money than less, or none. In a survey, researchers found that people in general described wanting to avoid feeling like a thief by keeping the money. (Respondents were different than the employees who were left with the wallet.) That would explain why returns increased as the dollar amount went up.

The study was limited by the fact that the wallets were left with people who could have presumably been held accountable for not returning them. The research assistant could have returned to inquire about the wallet’s status, while no such concern exists for people finding a wallet in the street. Still, it does indicate that people feel a measure of sympathy for—and moral obligation to—lost money and will make an effort to see it returned.

[h/t Science News]

Some Fish Eggs Can Hatch After Being Pooped Out by Swans

iStock/olaser
iStock/olaser

A question that’s often baffled scientists is how certain species of fish can sometimes appear—and even proliferate—in isolated bodies of water not previously known to harbor them. A new study has demonstrated that the most unlikely explanation might actually be correct: It’s possible they fell from the sky.

Specifically, from the rear end of a swan.

A study in the journal Ecology by researchers at the Unisinos University in Brazil found that killifish eggs can, in rare cases, survive being swallowed by swans, enduring a journey through their digestive tracts before being excreted out. This kind of fecal public transportation system explains how killifish can pop up in ponds, flood waters, and other water bodies that would seem an unlikely place for species to suddenly appear.

After discovering that some plants could survive being ingested and then flourish in swan poop, researchers took notice of a killifish egg present in a frozen fecal sample. They set about mixing two species of killifish eggs into the food supply of coscoroba swans living in a zoo. After waiting a day, they collected the poop and dug in looking for the eggs.

Of the 650 eggs they estimated to have been ingested by the swans, about five were left intact. Of those, three continued to develop. Two died of a fungal infection, but one survived, enduring 30 hours in the gut and hatching 49 days after being excreted.

Because killifish eggs have a thick outer membrane, or chorion, they stand a chance of coming through the digestive tract of an animal intact. Not all of what a swan ingests will be absorbed; their stomachs are built to extract nutrients quickly and get rid of the whatever's left so the birds can eat again. In rare cases, that can mean an egg that can go on to prosper.

Not all fish eggs are so durable, and not all fish are quite like the killifish. Dubbed the "most extreme" fish on Earth by the BBC, killifish have adapted to popping up in strange environments where water may eventually dry up. They typically live for a year and deposit eggs that can survive in soil, delaying their development until conditions—say, not being inside a swan—are optimal. One species, the mangrove killifish, can even breathe through its skin. When water recedes, they can survive on land for over two months, waddling on their bellies or using their tails to "jump" and eat insects. A fish that can survive on dry land probably doesn't sweat having to live in poop.

The researchers plan to study carp eggs next to see if they, too, can go through a lot of crap to get to where they’re going.

[h/t The New York Times]

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