Distraction Free Reading

Detangling Molecular Hauntings: Hair as a Site of Preserving Lived Experience

Listen to an audio recording of this piece read by Benjamin Schaefer

Hair is a dynamic biological structure and retains great social significance for humans. Hair can grow on most external areas of the body except for the palmar and plantar surfaces of the hands and the soles of the feet. The number of areas where hair is most noticeable is also the most commonly coiffed, trimmed, shaved, or plucked. These areas include the face, ears, head, eyebrows, legs, underarm, stomach, and pubic regions. As humans develop in utero into fully formed adults, hair growth signals hormone production such as pubertal development where secondary sex characteristics become more visible. Specifically for hair, it can be an indication that intertwines social identity, status, religion, economics, and politics.

Throughout life, hair changes and reflects various humans’ biological life stages. For example, healthy hair indicates youthfulness (Trüeb 2005), color and texture can be a sign of ethnoracial ancestry (Dadzie et al. 2017; Lasisi 2021), secondary hair growth on the body indicates puberty and maturation (Kaplowitz et al. 2016; Žukauskaitė et al. 2005), whereas white or grey hair indicates advanced age or genetic predisposition (Rees 2003; Sulem et al. 2007). The socio-cultural significance of hair also makes it a site for negotiating and articulating social hierarchies. The ability to access spaces of professionalized haircare and styling become sites of reproducing classed and racialized boundaries. Johnson and Bankhead (2014) observed that Black women spend up to three times more on hair care, compared to any other ethnic group of women (Rooks 1996). People invest in hair care across various political, ethnoracial, religious, and economic groups which makes hair an observable site of expressing identity. These learnings from the present are crucial to the understanding of hair in antiquity.

While many people experiment with how they wear their hair, many Black, Indigenous, and People of Color do not have the same privilege. Naturally tight, coiled hair can be worn and styled in an exponential number of ways[1] such as an Afro, braids, or Bantu knots. This affects income because of systemic racist hiring practices that disproportionately police BIPoC hairstyles while celebrating straightened hair (i.e., more Eurocentric hairstyles). Regardless of how BIPoC peoples wear their hair, wearing their hair natural is symbolic of self-acceptance and a rebellious act against hegemonic racist Eurocentric beauty standards (Rosado 2003).

The image shows the elaborate investments made in hair that are laden with social meanings

Figure SEQ Figure \* ARABIC 1: Wig with Human Hair. The final 20 cms are wrapped with camelid fibres and dyed to create the Andean terrace appearance. Middle Horizon Period (600-1000 CE) Central Andes. Currently housed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. This picture can be accessed on the webpage of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

My own work engages with the relationship between stress and hair in the ancient Andes. Hair becomes a biological receipt that itemizes socially embodied experiences during life and solidified in time at death. Even as affect associated with hair is not directly apparent in this context, the molecular examination of hair can tell us about the environmental and social ecologies in which personhoods are embodied (Lans 2021).

Hair has been important across time periods and throughout spaces, especially in the ancient Andes. Soft tissues rarely survive the archaeological record due to preservation issues with soil acidity and the organic materials breaking down during decomposition. Due to the environmental extremes in the Andes, natural mummification readily occurs, rendering soft tissue an aspect of analysis that other regions in the world cannot. Dated to the Middle Horizon (600-1000 CE), a Wari Empire-style braided wig was recovered and donated to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1996 from a private family collection (Figure 1). The cap resembles a wig-like headgear that consists of natural brown camelid yarn-like fibers followed by a series of inter-looping human hair braids with the final 20 centimeters wrapped with dyed camelid fibers to create the Andean geometric patterning. While the exact provenance is unknown, it clearly demonstrates that hair was an important aspect of ancient Andean life.

As we change and style our hair throughout life, the keratinized structure grows at a metered rate that becomes a biomarker solidified in time that retains our socially embodied lived experiences. Thus, the body, and specifically hair, become a biomolecular archive of pain, resistance, and trauma, as much as a center to illuminate pleasure and sensuousness. Examining the bones for trauma, pain, and other social forms of life haunt bioarchaeological research. Gordon (2006:9) reminds us that these hauntings are not simply just about the dead person that we study, but that these hauntings illuminate the “social figure” of the dead where their dynamic histories and subjectivities collide creating their social life.

Using ancient molecules, such as hormones, embedded in hair renders it possible to reconstruct the socially embodied lived experiences, by inferring their psychosocial stress responses, in the months leading up to their last haircut (or death). Cortisol is produced in times of heightened perceived stressful events that activate the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis (HPA axis) to secrete cortisol and mitigate stress. This ‘Flight-or-Fight’ response is activated when experiencing various situations such as pregnancy (Khaled et al. 2021; Obel et al. 2005), abuse (Andersen et al. 2021), political and social unrest (Schaefer 2022), and Cushing’s Disease (Thomson et al. 2010). Thus, using hair to infer the psychosocial stress of socially embodied lived experiences can help investigate stress in antiquity through a nuanced molecular lens.

The molecularized social life provides unique insights into individual lives which can empirically elucidate the embodiment of psychosocial stressors. Integrating these theoretical frameworks allow for a nuanced examination of social inequalities within the imperial system, emphasizing the sociality of particular bodies that lived in relation to the empire (Dornan 2004; Joyce 2003, 2004, 2005; Joyce and Meskell 2014). Bioarchaeological anthropology is uniquely poised to address the intersections between human biology and culture by weaving together ethnohistorical, archaeological, and biological datasets to study human remains.

Stress is defined as a physiological change caused by strain on an organism from environmental, nutritional, psychological, and other pressures (Goodman et al. 1988; Huss-Ashmore et al. 1982; Reitsema and McIlvaine 2014; Temple 2019). However, stress is a complex category that goes beyond measurable and direct cause-effect logics. Stress persists and accumulates across generations transforming hair grown during life as a biomolecular receipt of our lives. Here, the body responds to the threatening external stressors, by secreting the cortisol hormone, which, while beneficial in the short term can have adverse health outcomes if experienced over a long period of time (Schaefer 2017). As hair grows throughout life, the keratinized structure becomes a biomarker solidified in time that retains our socially embodied “lived experiences” up until the last cut (following Csordas 2002). In my work with sacrificial contexts in the ancient Andes, the carefully choreographed selection of children brought direct benefits to the tributary groups who supplied them and created a climate of emotional illness. Whether these children were explicitly contrived or implicitly apprehended by those in control, emotional inurement creates a need that can be converted into allegiance to the imperial system (Benson and Cook 2001; Duviols 1976; Nell 2006). The body, and specifically hair, become a biomolecular archive of socially embodied lived experiences that illuminate individual social lives in the months leading up to death. Building on these foundational concepts of embodiment, DOHaD, and stress under the oppressive imperial structures, my research provides a broader understanding of ancient Andean human sacrifice under the imperial enterprise.


[1] It is important to note that Black people as a group have an array of hair textures as they are not an ethnically or biologically homogenous group but an ad-hoc of different ethnic and biological mixes.


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