Why do humans have so little hair, at least compared to all other primates? At Smithsonian, Jason Daley shares the latest genetic research on the biological factors that result in humans' minimal body hair and its unusual distribution. Daley also surveys the fascinating current theories about why we evolved into the only naked apes. From Smithsonian:
One popular idea that has gone in and out of favor since it was proposed is called the aquatic ape theory. The hypothesis suggests that human ancestors lived on the savannahs of Africa, gathering and hunting prey. But during the dry season, they would move to oases and lakesides and wade into shallow waters to collect aquatic tubers, shellfish or other food sources. The hypothesis suggests that, since hair is not a very good insulator in water, our species traded in most of our fur for a layer of fat. The hypothesis even suggests we might have developed bipedalism to become more effective waders. But this idea, which has been around for decades, hasn’t received much support from the fossil record and isn’t taken seriously by most researchers.
A more widely accepted theory is that, when human ancestors moved from the cool shady forests into the savannah, they needed better thermoregulation. Losing all that fur made it possible for hominins to hunt during the day in the hot grasslands without overheating. An increase in sweat glands, many more than other primates, also kept early humans on the cool side. The development of fire and clothing meant that humans could keep cool during the day and cozy up at night.
But these are not the only possibilities, and perhaps the loss of hair is due to a combination of factors. Evolutionary scientist Mark Pagel at the University of Reading has also proposed that going fur-less was a way to control lice and other parasites. Humans kept some patches of hair, like the stuff on our heads to protect from the sun and the stuff on our pubic regions to retain secreted pheromones. But the more hairless we got, Pagel says, the more attractive it became, and a stretch of hairless hide turned into a potent advertisement of a healthy, parasite-free mate.
One of the most intriguing theories is that humans lost the hair on their faces and some of the hair around their genitals to help with emotional communication.
Why Did Humans Lose Their Fur? (Smithsonian)
image: Tim Evanson / "A reconstruction of the head of an Australopithecus afarensis -- a human ancestor -- on display in the Hall of Human Origins in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C."