We all know that hair is essentially dead protein, but how long can something that’s dead survive? Until recently, the oldest samples of human hair were from a 9,000 year-old mummy found in northern Chile. However, palaeontologists have newly discovered 40 strands of hair from a human who lived 200,000 years ago, preserved inside fossilised hyena dung in South Africa.
It would appear that our hair holds more significance than meets the eye. We tend take it for granted – until baldness sets in – but hair is probably one of our most defining physical features, in more ways than one. While humans have continued to evolve over the years, one defining element has essentially remained the same, and this new discovery could shed some light on an entirely new human species.
“This find is so unusual as the human fossil record at this time is exceedingly poor, and of course hair is relatively fragile and degrades easily,” said Dr Lucinda Backwell, a palaeontologist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, who led the group that found the hairs.
“As analytical techniques become more advanced they could shed light on what the person looked like, their state of health, and other aspects that cannot be investigated with current technologies.”
Researchers compared the fossilised hairs to samples from modern humans, primates and other animals in an attempt to identify them. They concluded that the width, shape and scales of the hairs were consistent with those of humans, as opposed to other primates.
The researchers believe that the hair may have belonged to an early human species known as Homo heidelbergensis, which was living in Africa around 200,000 years ago, or could be from one of the first Homo sapiens, who are thought to have evolved around 195,000 years ago. But they could not rule out the possibility that it was from another entirely new human species.
Scientists believe the human who owned the hair was scavenged by hyaenas after death. How is it then, that a 200,000 year-old human’s hair still exists today when modern men and women as young as 18 are losing theirs?
Dr Kirsty Penkman from York University attempted to extract DNA and protein from the hair samples but was unable to find any. The scientists hope that as techniques improve it may be possible to extract some in the future. This could put a whole new spin on stem cell hair loss treatment research!
Scientists highlighted the magnitude of such a discovery as it is extremely rare for soft tissue such as hair, skin and muscle to survive more than a few hundred years. Most people would find it hard to believe that these things could survive even fifty years.
Wrinkles, hair loss, muscle weakness – these are the bane of most modern persons’ existence and we’re constantly trying to find ways to stop the clock. If our hair has the power to divulge invaluable scientific information for future generations, then it’s just as well we’re able to control the balding process these days.