Oldest Human Hairs Found in Hyena Dung Fossil

Fossil human hair, found in hyena dung, magnified 300 times. (Image credit: Lucinda Backwell)

The oldest known human hair belonged to a 9,000-year-old mummy disinterred from an ancient Chilean cemetery.

Until now. A recent discovery pushes the record back some 200,000 years. (And the newly discovered strands received a rather less dignified burial.)

While excavating in Gladysvale Cave, near Johannesburg, South Africa, a team of researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand discovered an ancient brown-hyena latrine. Upon inspection, hyena coprolites — fossilized dung — appeared to contain uncannily hair-like structures.

Lucinda Backwell, a paleontologist in the group, took a sediment block containing several coprolites back to the lab for a closer look. She and a colleague carefully removed forty of the "hairs apparent" from one of the coprolites and subjected half to scanning-electron microscopy. Sure enough, fossilized hairs they were, and five showed remarkably preserved surface scales.

Comparing the scales to those of a variety of animals — an admittedly tricky undertaking — Backwell's team concluded that human hairs were the best match.

Dating of the cave's limestone layers showed that the dung had been deposited sometime between 257,000 and 195,000 years ago. During that period, both early Homo sapiens and a relation, H. heidelbergensis, roamed the South African landscape.

A couple of chilling explanations spring to mind as to how human hairs might have become lodged in hyena dung. Backwell thinks it most likely that a brown hyena scavenged an ancestral human's remains.

The finding was detailed in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

This article was provided to LiveScience by Natural History Magazine.