I am a palaeontologist living and working in Alice Springs, in the red centre of Australia. I moved here with my wife and three kids from Johannesburg, South Africa. I used to focus my research on dinosaurs, and it is fair to say I am still a dino nut but these days I work on fossils from the NT, be they turtles, tassie tigers or anything else. In my spare time I like to watch birds, catch beetles, lizards and snakes and generally find out as much about the species around me as I can.
200 000 year old human hair from a hyaena coprolite. Image from Backwell et al. 2009
Over a week ago Lucinda Backwell, who also works at the BPI at Wits, announced the discovery of fossilised human hair that exceeds the previous oldest known hair (from a 9000 year old mummy) by about 200 000 years. Indeed it is so old it might not even belong to our own species but might instead belong to H. heidelbergensis. The story was picked up by some of our local papers but doesn't appear to have generated much interest in the blogosphere, so I thought I'd timidly foray into the world of palaeoanthropology and discuss Backwell et al.'s paper here. What adds some iterest to the story is where the fossil hair was found: inside a hyaena coprolite from Gladysvale Cave in the 'Cradle of Humankind' , South Africa (practically next door to such famous sites as Sterkfontein and Swartkrans). Coprolites are, of course fossilised faeces. Does this mean a hyaena attacked and killed a Homo species in the Late Pleistocene of South Africa? Well I'm sure our ancestors and relatives may have on occasion fallen prey to spotted hyaenas and some of the larger extinct forms. However this fossil does not record such an event. The coprolite was part of a latrine buried in situ in Gladysvale Cave,and the details of this latrine, such as its location inside a cave, small size and well circumscribed boundaries, all indicate that it was made by a brown hyaena (Parahyaena brunnea). Brown hyaenas are rather smallish and are not known to kill humans. Far more likely is that this represents scavenging on an already deceased member of our genus.
A brown hyaena
It was the cave setting that allowed the latrine to be dated. The latrine is sandwiched between two flowstones which contain enough Uranium to be used for Uranium-Thorium dating. This dating was done as part of a larger project by Robyn Pickering, one of the brightest students to come through the BPI in recent years. Sadly the hairs are preserved as casts in carbonate. No trace of organics are left so we won't be getting any molecular data for 200 000 year old hominids just yet. By itself that is about all that the paper can tell us. Perhaps if more such latrines could be found we could then survey more scats for fossil hair and discover how frequent such scavenging events occured. Discovery of even older hair, might start to reveal systematic variation and we might even be able to hazard some guesses as to what kind of hairs our more remote relatives bore. For instance we might be able to get a handle on when modern style short fine body hair evolved. The Gladysvale deposits cetainly go back much further in time so the potential for finding australopithecine hair is there. This also serves to remind us that coprolites are unique microenvironments that have unusual preservation potentials. Ever snce the oldest known mammalian hair was found in Paleocene coprolites, I've thought that coprolites offer us the best chance to find out just when our unique mammalian pelage evolved. I have looked through coprolites from a Middle Triassic synapsid bearing site in the hopes of finding non-mammalian hair but so far no luck.
UPDATE: Randy rightly asked how the ID was made. Mammalian hair is not completely diagnostic to low taxonomic categories. It helped that several specimens were found in the coprolite. Any one hyaena scat usually contains the hair from just one sitting so is not likely to be mixed with other species. Thus there was a sample of several hairs to work from. Only human hairs were found to match the range of variation seen in the fossil hairs (using characteristics such as scale margins, scale spacing, hair width etc.). Other primates came close but most non-human primates produce finer hair. So the ID is a probabilistic one, hence the equivocation in the title of the paper.
L BACKWELL, R PICKERING, D BROTHWELL, L BERGER, M WITCOMB, D MARTILL, K PENKMAN, A WILSON (2009). Probable human hair found in a fossil hyaena coprolite from Gladysvale cave, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2009.01.023