Science Questions

Did cavemen cut their hair?

Mon, 18th Apr 2016

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Question

Stephen Tatham asked:

In the stone age, how did people cut their hair?

Answer

Kat Arney put this question to Cambridge archaeologist Margarita Gleba...Stone Age Cave Art - Panel of Hands

Margarita - Well the simple answer is with very sharp stone tools.  We tend to imagine stone tools as something very crude  but, in fact, if you think that all the stone tools found recently on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya, date to 3.3 million years ago. This is before the homo species and homo genus has been around.

Chris - But we didn’t know they were cutting hair though - did we?

Margarita - Well, they probably weren’t cutting hair at that point, but if you think that they’ve being doing this for 3 million years, that by late stone age, to which the question is referring, they were pretty good at making stone tools. So a very nice sharp flint knife or particularly obsidian, which is razor sharp.

Chris - How would we know when the first hair salon opened up in the stone age era?  When did people begin to really chop hair do we think?

Margarita - Well we know humans lost their body hair, their fur effectively, about 2.5 to 3 million years ago when they moved from more forest habitat into open savannah and, in order to be able to hunt effectively in the hot climate, they lost fur.  The only place where they didn’t lose the hair was the scalp,  the point of the hair on our scalp is to protect our head from the hot sun.  Now when people moved into more temperate climates, the hair became less curly, became more straight, and became longer. Straight hair gets more ultraviolet through which you need in more temperate climates so that you produce vitamin D and have better bones and so on.

Kat - There’s less sunshine so you need more light to get to your skin.

Margarita - But that said, there is also a theory that actually, a lot of this development has to do with sexual selection, since long and healthy hair is a sign of fertility and youth.

Chris - You need a good diet, lots of protein.  You need to be healthy to grow your hair…

Margarita - You need to be able to take care of it as well.

Kat - But would people have taken care of it by cutting it or just by washing it, styling it?

Margarita - Well, that is the million dollar question, I suppose. What we do know is that by late paleolithic when we have the earliest representation…

Chris - When’s that?

Margarita - So we’re talking about 28 - 25 thousand years ago when we had the earliest representations of human beings; the majority of them are female.  We do have fairly conclusive evidence that their hair was braided.  So it would have been long and it would probably have been braided.  Even if it was cut they were still keeping it quite long. Men on the other hand - the few representations we have - don’t seem to show any hair on them.  There may be various reasons for that but one of the explanations is that hair, when it’s not washed the way that we wash it today with gazillions of shampoos, would emanate a lot of odour, and that would scare of the prey. So, if you were a hunter in the stone age, of course, you…

Chris - What about scare of mates as well, perhaps?

Margarita - Well - I wasn’t going there…

Chris - More sensibly, will it not  also be a home for parasites and so, by trimming it, you’re giving fewer lice and nits a home?

Margarita - That is also a very accepted theory currently.  That is the reason for cutting…

Chris - The critical thing to answer this original question is that we haven’t got any evidence before say 25,000 years of what people did with their hair?  We can only, therefore infer that perhaps they had the means - sharp tools…

Margarita - They had the means but whether they did it is an entirely different question.

 

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Hair on different parts of our bodies has a different growth/resting cycle, which produces hair of different lengths on different parts of our bodies, if we don't cut it at all.

So, if you are happy to let hair reach its "natural" length, you don't need to cut it at all.

In the stone age, various specialized tools were developed; in some areas volcanic glass or flint was available, which can produce very sharp edges. These would have been very useful if fashion dictated an "unnatural" length for hair. evan_au, Sat, 28th Nov 2015

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