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.

Sssspectacular: Tree Snakes in Australia Can Actually Jump

sirichai_raksue/iStock via Getty Images
sirichai_raksue/iStock via Getty Images

Ophidiophobia, or fear of snakes, is common among humans. We avoid snakes in the wild, have nightmares about snakes at night, and recoil at snakes on television. We might even be born with the aversion. When researchers showed babies photos of snakes and spiders, their tiny pupils dilated, indicating an arousal response to these ancestral threats.

If you really want to scare a baby, show them footage of an Australian tree snake. Thanks to researchers at Virginia Tech, we now know these non-venomous snakes of the genus Dendrelaphis can become airborne, propelling themselves around treetops like sentient Silly String.

That’s Dendrelaphis pictus, which was caught zipping through the air in 2010. After looking at footage previously filmed by her advisor Jake Socha, Virginia Tech Ph.D. candidate Michelle Graham headed for Australia and built a kind of American Ninja Warrior course for snakes out of PVC piping and tree branches. Graham observed that the snakes tend to spot their landing target, then spring upward. The momentum gets them across gaps that would otherwise not be practical to cross.

Graham next plans to investigate why snakes feel compelled to jump. They might feel a need to escape, or continue moving, or do it because they can. Two scientific papers due in 2020 could provide answers.

Dendrelaphis isn’t the only kind of snake with propulsive capabilities. The Chrysopelea genus includes five species found in Southeast Asia and China, among other places, that can glide through the air.

[h/t National Geographic]

9 Facts About Narcolepsy

Korrawin/iStock via Getty Images
Korrawin/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone experiences occasional daytime sleepiness, but just a small fraction of the population knows what it’s like to have narcolepsy. The disorder is defined by persistent drowsiness throughout the day, and in some cases, sleep paralysis, hallucinations, and the sudden loss of muscle control known as cataplexy. Having narcolepsy can make doing everyday activities difficult or dangerous for patients, but unlike some chronic conditions, it’s also easy to diagnose and treat. Here are some facts you should know about the condition.

1. There are two types of narcolepsy.

If everything you know about narcolepsy comes from movies and TV, you may think of it as the disease that causes people to go limp without warning. Sudden loss of muscle control is called cataplexy, and it’s the defining symptom of type 1 narcolepsy. Type 2 narcolepsy, on the other hand, is mainly characterized by fatigue. Losing motor function while awake isn’t a problem for those with type 2.

2. Type 1 narcolepsy stems from a chemical deficiency.

Almost every patient with type 1 narcolepsy has low levels of hypocretin. Hypocretin is a neurochemical that regulates the wake-sleep cycle. When there isn’t enough of this chemical in the brain, people have trouble staying conscious and alert throughout the day. Most people with the second, less severe type of narcolepsy have normal hypocretin levels, with about a third of them producing low or undetectable amounts. Type 2 narcoplepsy has been studied far less than type 1 of the disorder, and scientists are still figuring out what causes it.

3. The exact causes of narcolepsy aren’t always clear.

So why do some people’s brains produce less hypocretin than others? That part has been hard for scientists to figure out. One possible explanation is that certain autoimmune disorders cause the body to attack the healthy brain cells that make this chemical. This disorder can be the result of genetic and environmental factors. Although people with narcolepsy rarely pass it down to their offspring (this happens less than 1 percent of the time), the sleep condition does occasionally crop up in family clusters, suggesting there is sometimes a genetic component at play. Head trauma that impacts the area of the brain responsible for governing sleep can also lead to narcolepsy in rare cases.

4. There are tests to diagnose narcolepsy.

If patients believe they might have narcolepsy, their doctors might ask them to detail their sleep history and keep a record of their sleep habits. There are also a few tests potential narcoleptics can take to determine if they have the condition. During a polysomnography test, patients spend the night at a medical facility with electrodes attached to their heads to monitor their breathing, eye movement, and brain activity. A multiple sleep latency test is similar, except it gauges how long it takes patients to fall asleep during the day.

5. Strong emotions can trigger cataplexy.

Cataplectic spells can sometimes be predicted by triggers. In some patients, feeling strong emotions—whether they’re crying, laughing, angry, or stressed—is all it takes for them to lose muscle control. These triggers vary from patient to patient, and they can even affect the same person randomly. Some people deal with them by avoiding certain situations and closing themselves off emotionally, which can disrupt their social lives.

6. Narcolepsy can make sleep terrifying.

Narcoleptics don’t just worry about their disorder during their waking hours. When they’re trying to fall asleep at night or wake up in the morning, narcolepsy can complicate things. One symptom is experiencing vivid, dream-like hallucinations while transitioning in or out of consciousness. These visions are often scary and may involve an intruder in the room with the sleeper. If they happen as the patient falls asleep, the hallucinations are called hypnagogic, and if they occur as they wake up, they’re hypnopompic.

A related symptom is sleep paralysis. This happens when a person’s brain cuts off muscle control of their body before they’re fully asleep or as they’re waking up. This combined with hypnagogic or hypnopompic nightmares can cause frightening experiences that are sometimes confused for real encounters.

7. Narcoleptics sometimes do activities half-asleep.

To outside observers, narcolepsy is sometimes hard to spot. A narcoleptic patient overcome by sleepiness won’t necessarily pass out in the middle of what they’re doing. Some act out “automatic behavior,” which means they continue with their actions—whether that’s walking, driving, or typing—with limited consciousness. This can cause poor performance at work or school, and in worst case scenarios, accidents while driving a car or operating machinery.

8. Harriet Tubman may have had narcolepsy.

One of the most famous likely narcoleptics in history is Harriet Tubman. The African American abolitionist was known to suffer from what were probably sudden narcoleptic episodes. The condition may have stemmed from the severe head trauma she sustained when a slave master threw an iron at another slave and hit her instead. The injury left her with permanent brain damage: In addition to narcolepsy, she also experienced chronic seizures and migraines throughout her life.

9. Medications and lifestyle changes are common narcolepsy treatments.

Though there’s no way to cure narcolepsy completely, there are many treatment options available. Taking medication is one of the most common ways to manage the disorder. Stimulants such as modafinil and armodafinil can be used to combat mild sleepiness, while amphetamines are often prescribed for more severe forms of fatigue. For hallucinations and sleep paralysis, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors—drugs that suppress REM sleep—can help.

As an alternative or supplementary treatment to medications, doctors may recommend lifestyle changes. Sticking to a sleep schedule, exercising regularly, avoiding nicotine and alcohol, and taking naps during the day can all reduce the symptoms of narcolepsy.

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