Ancient Hair Colour Deceptive

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A new study has revealed that red-haired ancient human remains were actually not always indicative of that person having had a ginger top whilst alive. It seems that there are processes after death that cause hair to degrade  – such as strong sunlight and microbial activity – that could cause the hair to gradually adopt the reddish tones.

In fact the researchers think that many of these processes begin during life and these discoveries represent an important step for both conservationists and archaeologists. They could also prove extremely useful to forensic investigations, according to Perth – Australia – based Curtin University forensic scientist Silvana Tridico.

Tridico has spent three decades intensively studying hair and in this latest research project she and her colleagues examined some 450 hair samples. These came from, humans both ancient and modern as well as from a variety of animals. The team first examined them hairs at low magnification to make notes on color length and physical profile.

Then they switched to the use of a scanning electron microscope to study them in even greater detail. Their findings showed that  many of the hair degradation processes begin in living creatures and continue after death. This is apparently true especially when it comes to microbial activity.

It seems that there are two types of hair pigments – one for red hair and one for dark – which are contained in all hairs. These are degraded by sunlight in the process dubbed photo-oxidation. It turns out that the dark hair variety is less stable so prolonged sunlight exposure leads to a reddening of the hair as seen in Australian Aboriginal tribesmen.  

Added to this was the finding that fungi invasion of hair was quite common and since a layer of Hyphae – fungal filaments – coating a hair have a reddish hue this also can lead to a deceptive appearance.  On occasion also red pigmentation from the environment can get into hair. Examples might be the Tannins found in peat bogs or iron oxide in soil but there are many other ways in which the hair colour can be affected to give off a tinge of red.

After death there is just one process of hair degradation which causes  a darkening of hair roots due to so-called post-mortem banding, which forensic experts put to good use during investigations.  The simple truth is that hair can tell all kinds of stories to those experts but the colours might well be deceptive.

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