Why did we go bald? The love and loss of human hair

Roughly two million years ago we were living in a golden age of hairiness. Then we became balding apes neurotically preoccupied with the state of our hair. But why did it disappear? Andy Martin reports

Where hair is concerned, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. On an evolutionary scale, we only acquired “hair” at the very point at which we started losing it. We transitioned from creatures with fur or a pelt to people with hair, little clumps of it scattered around the body in odd places, and always liable to drop out.

Humanity was born out of a steaming vat of follicular nostalgia. Around two million years ago, we became what we are now – balding apes neurotically preoccupied with the state of our hair. And there are at least two strong and conflicting theories about how and why this crucial development in our deep history took place. Each of them focuses on a different aspect of who we are now: mother love and the joy of jogging. But what is clear is that hair is us. Hair is the great universal, even when it’s gone. Especially when it’s gone.

Our distant hominid ancestors were once covered in hair from head to toe (setting aside eyes and lips and a few other body parts). Like other primates, we were extremely hirsute. Hair was immensely important to us. In the absence of clothing it kept us warm. It offered a flexible defence against the elements, protecting from cold and sun alike. And a thick mat of hair stopped you getting smacked and scratched quite so much by the branches of trees (try swinging through trees naked and you’ll soon see what I mean). Possibly it made us slightly less appealing as a tasty takeaway to passing predators. Who wants to eat a hairy sausage?

I don’t think there is much doubt: we used to enjoy our hair. It wasn’t all hunting and gathering. According to palaeontologists and evolutionary psychologists we spent a lot of time grooming too. You only have to observe our shaggy cousins among the primates – orangutans love to groom. And the important thing is that they are grooming one another as much as themselves. Tidying up and enhancing the hair is a fundamentally sociable activity. Hair brings us together. I will groom your hair if you groom mine. Hair may well have been the original social glue that stuck us together into clubs and clans and tribes. We had a built-in penchant for hairiness.

But, on the other hand, we were not that hair-conscious. Hair, as we understand it now, did not exist for all practical purposes: it was just stuff that we had all over the place and we all had it. There was little to choose between one highly hirsute primate and another. Hair – a full coat of hair or fur as it then was – was the great equaliser, a vast continuum linking each one of us to everyone else and to all other hirsute creatures. Roughly two million years ago we were living through a great golden age of hairiness. Needless to say, we had no idea that it was a golden age. We also had no idea that it was about to come to an end.

What went so dramatically wrong? Why, somewhere between one million and two million years ago, did we come to shed – not quite all of – our hair? Where did it all go? How did we become one enormous bald patch? It was almost as catastrophic as the meteorite that killed off the dinosaurs around 60 million years ago. That full body pelt was doomed to shrink, over thousands of years, to the precarious yet precious coverage we have today. [ … ]

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