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Open Anthro Vol 6-2 Hair Everywhere - Anthropological Notes on the Long and Short of It



Open Anthropology, Hair, anthropology, anthropology hair, culture, cultural anthropology


The Editors’ Note: Hair Everywhere: Anthropological Notes on the Long and Short of It

Sallie Han, Department of Anthropology, SUNY Oneonta Jason Antrosio, Department of Anthropology, Hartwick College
With hair, you can have good days and bad ones, too much in the wrong places, and too little in the right ones. The legend and lore surrounding hair both caution individuals against cutting it (alas, Samson) or allowing others to keep it (no doubt for witchcraft). Let down, covered up, or shaved off, its presence and absence are important and meaningful in human experience.
For this issue of Open Anthropology, we combed through the journals of the American Anthropological Association and compiled these twelve articles and two book reviews that consider hair in terms of human biology, culture, and language.

Hair is one of the defining features of mammals. It provides insulation and protection against the sun. It also is seen as a marker of difference, with glabrousness distinguishing humans from other primates. Aside from hair on the head (and male face), under the arms, and in the groin area, humans are naked apes—or so zoologist Desmond Morris famously claimed in his 1967 book. However, biological anthropologist Nina Jablonski, in her 2004 Annual Review of Anthropology article on “The Evolution of Human Skin and Skin Color,” reminds us that far from being hairless, our skin is covered with hair that is less dense and much finer than that of other primates. “Explanations for the evolution of human hairlessness have been many, varied, and often highly creative,” Jablonski observes, apparently referring to claims made for sexual selection and the aquatic ape hypothesis that proposes loss of body hair as an adaptation to activity in water. “The most cogent explanations are based on the importance of a functionally naked skin in maintaining body temperature in hot environments” (598).

Hairiness is associated with other (non-human) animals and also with ancestral and early humans, as Judith C. Berman discusses in her 1999 American Anthropologist article, “Bad Hair Days in the Paleolithic: Modern (Re)Constructions of the Cave Man.” The focus here is on the trope of the Cave Man—a conflation of Middle Paleolithic hominids like Neanderthals and early modern humans of the Upper Paleolithic—as depicted recently in popular culture and historically in artistic and scientific works. Berman emphasizes that we have neither direct evidence of what they looked like nor scientific reason to assume they were wild-haired and hairy, as commonly portrayed. First, as primatologist Alison Jolly noted, non-human primates invest considerable time in grooming, which results in both social bonds and neat and clean (though not styled) hair. Second, if the loss of body hair is a thermoregulatory adaptation in humans, then it is likely to have occurred in the Lower Paleolithic period. Third, visual representations dating to the Upper Paleolithic—specifically, the so-called Venus figurines—depict styled or at least stylized hair in great detail, suggesting that early modern humans attended to their coiffure. Thus, images of the hirsute Cave Man are more revealing of our historical and modern imaginings than of ancestral and early humans themselves.


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