Human Hair Confirmed in Prehistoric Hyena Feces

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Human hair found in fossilized hyena poop suggests that our ancestors satisfied the hunger of others during prehistoric times.

The fossilized dung, part of a “hyena latrine,” will be described in the upcoming October issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science. The latrine was first found a few years ago at Gladysvale cave in the Sterkfontein Valley of South Africa, but it recently went through an additional barrage of testing.

Our ancestors there lived around a literally wild bunch about 257,000 years ago.

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“Based on the fossil hairs identified here, this research has established that brown hyenas shared the Sterkfontein Valley with hominins, warthog, impala, zebra and kudu,” authors Phillip Taru and Lucinda Backwell of the University of the Witwatersrand wrote.

They continued, “Apart from humans, these animals are associated with savanna grasslands, much like the Highveld environment of today.”

It sounds like there are three ways in which the hairs could have wound up where they did:

1. The hyena ate a person(s). This happens even today, so it’s very possible.

2. The hyena scavenged a dead person’s body.

3. Somehow the hyena consumed a blob of human hair. Hey, you never know. If the hyena were hungry enough, it might have sampled all kinds of weird things.

What’s clear, at least, is that humans were at the site.

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As the researchers wrote, “Hair provides evidence of inland occupation by archaic Homo sapiens or modern humans.”

The hair lacked scales, which could provide yet another useful clue.

“A lack of hair scales has been documented in human hair subject to pathology, a condition observed when studying our diabetic colleague’s hair as part of the human comparative sample,” Taru and Backwell explained.

Life in a cave could have led to many bad hair days, though. “Abrasion of the hair resulting from inhabiting rock crevices” could have led to lack of scales, according to the authors.

It’s impressive how valuable an old hair stuck in hyena poop can be. Future investigations will likely focus on the region in South Africa to learn more about our human ancestors there and how they interacted with other species.

(Image: Gill Penney, Flickr)

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