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.

10 Facts About the Winter Solstice, the Shortest Day of the Year

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Amid the whirl of the holiday season, many are vaguely aware of the approach of the winter solstice, but how much do you really know about it? Whether you're a fan of winter or just wish it would go away, here are 10 things to note—or even celebrate—about the shortest day of the year.

1. The winter solstice HAPPENS ON DECEMBER 21/22 in 2019.

Sun setting behind a tree in the winter
buxtree/iStock via Getty Images

The date of the winter solstice varies from year to year, and can fall anywhere between December 20 and December 23, with the 21st or 22nd being the most common dates. The reason for this is because the tropical year—the time it takes for the sun to return to the same spot relative to Earth—is different from the calendar year. The next solstice occurring on December 20 will not happen until 2080, and the next December 23 solstice will not occur until 2303.

2. The winter solstice hAPPENS AT A SPECIFIC, BRIEF MOMENT.

sun setting through the trees
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Not only does the solstice occur on a specific day, but it also occurs at a specific time of day, corresponding to the instant the North Pole is aimed furthest away from the sun on the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth's axis. This is also the time when the sun shines directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. In 2019, this moment occurs at 4:19 a.m. UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) on December 22. For those on Eastern Standard Time, the solstice will occur at 11:19 p.m. on December 21. And regardless of where you live, the solstice happens at the same moment for everyone on the planet.

3. The winter solstice mARKS THE LONGEST NIGHT AND SHORTEST DAY OF THE YEAR FOR THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE.

sun setting over Central Park
rmbarricarte/iStock via Getty Images

As most are keenly aware, daylight hours grow shorter and shorter as the winter solstice approaches, and begin to slowly lengthen afterward. It's no wonder that the day of the solstice is referred to in some cultures as the "shortest day of the year" or "extreme of winter." New York City will experience 9 hours and 15 minutes of sunlight, compared to 15 hours and 5 minutes on the summer solstice. Helsinki, Finland, will get 5 hours and 49 minutes of light. Barrow, Alaska, will not have a sunrise at all (and hasn't since mid-November; its next sunrise will be on January 22), while the North Pole has had no sunrise since October. The South Pole, though, will be basking in the glow of the midnight sun, which won't set until March.

4. ANCIENT CULTURES VIEWED THE WINTER SOLSTICE AS A TIME OF DEATH AND REBIRTH.

snow on tree branches
Eerik/iStock via Getty Images

The seeming death of the light and very real threat of starvation over the winter months would have weighed heavily on early societies, who held varied solstice celebrations and rites meant to herald the return of the sun and hope for new life. Scandinavian and Germanic pagans lit fires and may have burned Yule logs as a symbolic means of welcoming back the light. Cattle and other animals were slaughtered around midwinter, followed by feasting on what was the last fresh meat for several months. The modern Druidic celebration Alban Arthan reveres the death of the Old Sun and birth of the New Sun.

5. THE  shortest DAY of the year MARKS THE DISCOVERY OF NEW AND STRANGE WORLDS.

Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth on December 21, 1620, to found a society that would allow them to worship freely. On the same day in 1898, Pierre and Marie Curie discovered radium, ushering in an atomic age. And on December 21, 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft launched, becoming the first manned moon mission.

6. THE WORD SOLSTICE TRANSLATES ROUGHLY TO "SUN STANDS STILL."

colorful sunset
a_Taiga/iStock via Getty Images

Solstice derives from the Latin scientific term solstitium, containing sol, which means "sun," and the past participle stem of sistere, meaning "to make stand." This comes from the fact that the sun’s position in the sky relative to the horizon at noon, which increases and decreases throughout the year, appears to pause in the days surrounding the solstice. In modern times, we view the phenomenon of the solstice from the position of space, and of the Earth relative to the sun. Earlier people, however, were thinking about the sun's trajectory, how long it stayed in the sky and what sort of light it cast.

7. STONEHENGE IS ALIGNED TO THE SUNSET ON the WINTER SOLSTICE.

Stonehenge sunset
jessicaphoto/iStock via Getty Images

The primary axis of the megalithic monument is oriented to the setting sun, while Newgrange, another structure built around the same time as Stonehenge, lines up with the winter solstice sunrise. Some have theorized that the position of the sun was of religious significance to the people who built Stonehenge, while other theories hold that the monument is constructed along natural features that happen to align with it. The purpose of Stonehenge is still subject to debate, but its importance on the winter solstice continues into the modern era, as thousands of hippies, pagans, and other types of enthusiasts gather there every year to celebrate the occasion.

8. ANCIENT ROMANS CELEBRATED REVERSALS AT THE MIDWINTER FESTIVAL OF SATURNALIA.

Saturnalia parade
A Saturnalia celebration in England in 2012.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The holiday, which began as a festival to honor the agricultural god Saturn, was held to commemorate the dedication of his temple in 497 BCE. It quickly became a time of widespread revelry and debauchery in which societal roles were overturned, with masters serving their slaves and servants being allowed to insult their masters. Mask-wearing and play-acting were also part of Saturnalia's reversals, with each household electing a King of Misrule. Saturnalia was gradually replaced by Christmas throughout the Roman Empire, but many of its customs survive as Christmas traditions.

9. SOME TRADITIONS HOLD THAT DARK SPIRITS WALK THE EARTH ON THE WINTER SOLSTICE.

Snowy woods
Serjio74/iStock via Getty Images

The Iranian festival of Yalda is celebrated on the longest night of the year. In pre-Islamic times, it heralded the birth of Mithra, the ancient sun god, and his triumph over darkness. Zoroastrian lore holds that evil spirits wander the Earth and the forces of the destructive spirit Ahriman are strongest on this long night. People are encouraged to stay up most of the night in the company of one another, eating, talking, and sharing poetry and stories, in order to avoid any brushes with dark entities. Beliefs about the presence of evil on the longest night are also echoed in Celtic and Germanic folklore.

10. SOME THOUGHT THE WORLD WOULD END ON THE 2012 WINTER SOLSTICE.

snowy woods with sun through the trees
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

December 21, 2012 corresponds to the date 13.0.0.0.0 in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar used by the ancient Maya, marking the end of a 5126-year cycle. Some people feared this juncture would bring about the end of the world or some other cataclysmic event. Others took a more New Age-y view (literally) and believed it heralded the birth of a new era of deep transformation for Earth and its inhabitants. In the end, neither of these things appeared to occur, leaving the world to turn through winter solstices indefinitely, or at least as long as the sun lasts.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

Cats Make Facial Expressions, But Not Everyone Can Read Them

takoburito/iStock via Getty Images
takoburito/iStock via Getty Images

Science has finally confirmed what humans have suspected for centuries: Cats are inscrutable creatures prone to peculiar behavior. Some of us, however, are still capable of picking up on their subtle emotional cues, including facial expressions, without relying on clues like tails, ears, or whiskers.

This new evidence of a cat’s slightly malleable face comes from a study in the journal Animal Welfare. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, recruited 6329 participants to watch a series of 20 video clips featuring cats reacting to either a positive or negative event. A positive interaction was defined as a feline approaching a human for a treat or an owner-identified action the cat traditionally found pleasant, like climbing into a favorite spot. A negative response was when a cat was confronted with something it wanted to avoid, was prevented from going into an area or outside, or was displaying an obvious sign of distress, like growling. (Sounds were edited out.) Most clips were from YouTube, though some were submitted by veterinarians and university colleagues. Breeds with long hair that might obscure facial changes were omitted. Most respondents were cat owners, and 74 percent were women 18 to 44 years old.

Using these brief clips, the researchers asked subjects to classify the cats as exhibiting positive or negative behavior by relying only on closely cropped footage of a cat’s face. They couldn’t rely on the tail or any other body language. The result? The average score was just 59 percent correct, accurately identifying a cat’s mood in an average of 12 out of the 20 clips. These humans, in other words, had little idea what a cat was experiencing based solely on their faces.

So why do researchers think they have any expression at all? Roughly 13 percent of subjects scored well on the test, getting at least 15 of the 20 questions correct. Those that did well were generally people who had extensive experience with cats, like veterinarians. That led researchers to conclude that people can become more attuned to the subtle flickers of emotion that may pass over a cat’s face.

“They could be naturally brilliant, and that’s why they become veterinarians,” Georgia Mason, a behavioral biologist and the study’s senior author, told The Washington Post. “But they also have a lot of opportunity to learn, and they’ve got a motivation to learn, because they’re constantly deciding: Is this cat better? Do we need to change the treatment? Does this cat need to go home? Is this cat about to take a chunk out of my throat?”

The paper appears to offer encouraging evidence that “cat whisperers” really do exist. If you’re curious whether you could be one of them, you can take a shortened version of the video test online.

[h/t Washington Post]

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