By Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh, 30 June 2011
The Meitei like other humans split from the chimpanzees and evolved into a more human-like form known as Homo ergaster (more ape-like than man) 1.7 million years ago. They left Africa 50,000 years ago.
In the beginning of human evolution there were two types of apes: the lazy ones and the other adventurous ones. The idle ones evolved into the present chimpanzees and the other into men.
The enterprising older Homo ergaster while still in Africa began to develop an external nose to adapt to the hot and dry climate. They also needed to shade their fur to cool the body, and a larger brain for sweating.
Further evolution changed their bodies to become more human-like than apes. That was when the Meitei ancestors among other human beings began to lose hairs.
According to Darwin (The Origin of Species & The Descent of Man 1871) who placed a lot of emphasis on sexual selection for evolution, the anatomical changes were an important factor in evolution. Men and women would have preferred partners with less hair, especially women.
This evolutionary change must be true as modern women want to be hairless. The modern Indo-European women still have lots of hair in the legs and arms, moustache and sometimes in the chest. Men continue to be more hairy.
There is another theory. An evolutionary biologist, Mark Pagel at the University of Reading, UK, suggested that lack of hair was preferred among early humans because it was a sure sign that no parasites were lurking in their fur. This also may be true as we see all the monkeys grooming each other picking parasites like fleas.
The question often asked, why then didn’t our hirsute ape cousins lose their fur? According to Pagel, it is because humans also developed their own culture, learned to build fires and shelter and to make clothes, which helped them keep warm while shedding their fur.
Another question is: why do women have less hair than men though we evolved from the same ape ancestors, and the temperature and fleas apply to both sexes?
According to Darwin, “As the body in woman is less hairy than in man, and as this character is common to all races, we may conclude that it was our female semi-human ancestors who were first divested of hair, also as a sexual ornament long before several races had diverged from a common stock.”
The evolutionary hypothesis is evident from a variety of depilatory creams, razors, shavers, waxing etc, that are commercially available on the market for the European women who socially expose their legs as sexual ornaments. For the Asians, the primitive but effective threading method of unwanted hair is still in vogue.
I always had a curiosity why some races like the Meitei have less hair than some other races. In fact, I did not know until I came to this country that women save their armpit and leg hairs.
I also came to know from my Muslim patients that they have to save their pubic hair every month because of their religion.
Darwin wrote in his book, The Descent of Man: It is assumed that hairlessness is to due partial recession of the long inherited trait, like the idiots who are often hairy and are apt to other characters to a lower animal type. However, according to modern research, vestiges of our hairy past persist, more in some races and less in some others.
Scientists say that the armpit and pubic hair continue to serve a purpose, aiding in the dispersal of chemical pheromones (a pheromone is a hormone that triggers a natural behavioural response in another member of the same family, such as sex response, alarm response etc.
Christopher Soligo, a biological anthropologist at the National History Museum in London has this to say: “Humans don’t actually have any fewer hairs than a chimpanzee or a gorilla. The difference is simply that over most of our human bodies, the hair has become as short and flimsy as to be virtually invisible. Some of it never even makes it to the surface of the skin.”
As for the moustache and beard, they are inherited in both male and female. Male and female foetuses both have them as inherited from our ape-like ancestors but the man retains them as secondary sexual characteristics, admired by woman.
Even the colour of the beard seems to have inherited from ape-like progenitor. When there is a difference in the tint of hair of the head and beard, the latter is always lighter, as seen with Amitab Bachan’s dyed black head hair and natural aging grey beard. This occurs in all monkeys and men.
The one that escapes scientific explanation is the head hair. Darwin wrote, “It is difficult to form any judgement as to how the hair on the head became developed to its present great length in many races.”
The head hair of the humans grows and grows at the rate of 2cm a month. It will grow for about 8 years to reach waist length. I can remember that when I was a boy of 6 or 7, there were Meitei girls with hip length hair.
Various hypotheses have been offered but all remain patchy. The best hypothesis was given by Arther Neufield and Glenn Conroy of Washington University in St. Louis, in their paper published in the journal, Evolutionary Anthropology titled: “Have you ever seen a chimpanzee getting a haircut?”
“It is that human head hair, and its myriad configurations in different human cultures, has been sexually selected for in human evolution as a mate-signalling device – perhaps the human equivalent of the peacock’s tail.”
The date when human hair was lost was proposed by archaeologists to about the arrival of Homo ergaster (more ape than human form) 1.7 million years ago.
Now the actual date has been supplied by geneticists who have extracted information by the study of a single gene that makes melanocortin receptor – a protein that helps determine skin and hair colour. This gene controls the proportion of melanin skin pigments that are synthesised by the human skin and hair.
Skin, hair, and eye colour are due to relative amounts of melanin. There are two kinds of melanin: Eumelanin is dark, with two types, black and brown. Phemomelanin is a light reddish brown. It is responsible for the colour of lips, nipples, freckles, red hair, green eyes and genitalia.
By applying the theory of ‘silent genetic mutations’ or ‘genetic sweeps’ of the process of human lineage to lose ape-like hair, Alan Rogers, a population geneticist at the University of Utah, USA calculated the date of the last sweep to about 1.2 million years ago.
The gene mutation was a natural selection to make the pale skin underneath the fur (as the present chimpanzees are pale if their fur is shaved off) of our joint human- chimp ancestors black to protect from the harmful UV rays of the sun. Once out of Africa the melanocortin receptor gene became free to collect mutations and change the colour of skin or hair.
My present feeling in the case of Negroid black curly hair is that perhaps in the next few generations, the African women’s curly hair would be replaced by straight hair as they are more attractive to men. They are now able to artificially straighten their hair. It is very rare now in Europe and America to see an African woman with her ethnic hair pattern. Example is the First Lady Michelle, the wife of President Obama, and their two daughters.
There is no doubt that all humans were originally Negros of Africa. Because of adaptation to survive different colours, shapes and sizes, and loss of body hair occurred, taking millions of years. The Meitei are such a group of human beings.
Du Bois in his book ‘The Negro’ writes. It makes it abundantly clear the development of the Negro in Northeast Africa, was facilitated by the settlement of Negroes from Ethiopia. He points out that there was mingling between the Negros and their counterparts from the Mediterranean and Asia, which produced some of the lighter skinned individuals pictured on some hieroglyphs.
It is a fact that Negro blood and influence reached beyond the shores of Africa. The fact that black priests appeared in Crete three thousand years before Christ, gives a glimpse of the extent to which Negro influence spread into the Mediterranean region. Socrates, one of history’s greatest philosophers, is reported to have had strong Negro features and to have done much study in Egypt. Shakespeare’s father was supposedly a Moor (Muslim) from North Africa or Spain, which explains some of Shakespeare’s non-European features.
Summary: once hairlessness had evolved for cooling the body of the apes, it may have become subject to sexual selection—being a feature in one sex that appealed to another. Smooth, clear skin may have become a signal of health, like a peacock’s tail, and could explain why women are naturally less hairy than men and why they put more effort into removing body hair. Despite exposing us to head lice, humans probably retained head hair for protection from the sun and to provide warmth when the air is cold. Pubic hair may have been retained for its role in enhancing pheromones or the airborne odours of sexual attraction.
Will we ever know why hairlessness was selected for in our lineage?
The writer is based in the UK