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Paleontologists Find Fossilized Human Hair In South Africa

May 11, 2009

Researchers discovered 40 strands of fossilized hair inside samples of fossilized dung from a cave in South Africa that was used by brown hyenas, The Telegraph UK reported.

Experts say it is extremely rare for soft tissue such as hair, skin and muscle to survive more than a few hundred years, and until the recent discovery, the oldest samples of human hair were found on a 9,000-year-old mummy in northern Chile.

Paleontologists believe the newly discovered hair samples are the remains of an early species of human that was scavenged by hyenas after death, leaving the hairs to be preserved inside the dung as it fossilized.

The hairs could eventually undergo detailed analysis to answer exactly which human species it came from, as well as the hair’s color and even the state of health of the person who owned it.

“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. It is the first non-bony material in the early hominid fossil record,” said Dr. Lucinda Backwell, a paleontologist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, who led the group that found the hairs.

She said scientists hope to soon shed light on what the person looked like, their state of health, and other aspects that cannot be investigated with current technologies.

The research teams from York University and University of Bradford compared the fossilized hairs to samples from modern humans, primates and other animals in an attempt to identify its origin.

They found that the width and shape of the hairs were consistent with those of humans, as opposed to other primates.

The hair may have belonged to an early human species known as Homo heidelbergensis, which was living in Africa around 200,000 years ago, researchers wrote in this month’s Journal of Archaeological Science.

They also suggest it could have come from one of the first Homo sapiens, who are thought to have evolved around 195,000 years ago.

Additionally, the researchers believe it could have even come from another entirely new species of human.

However, scientists were unable to extract DNA and protein from the hair samples and are now hoping that as techniques improve it may be possible to extract some in the future.

Fossilized dung may help to provide more examples of ancient human remains, experts said.

“Brown hyenas are scavengers, not hunters, so the hominid was dead by the time the hyena came upon it. It would appear that predator dung could be a good source of human hair in the fossil record,” said Backwell.

Scientists believe the contents of such dung could one day explain more about the ancient environments that early humans and their ancestors once inhabited.

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