Hair Color and Mummification

From a Youtube video of a skull that is supposedly with red hair.
From a Youtube video of a skull that is supposedly with red hair.

At least some if not much of what drives the association of Peruvian skulls that are elongated (by head-binding in their first 3 years of life) with various non-Peruvian explanations (aliens, nephilim giants, pre-Columbus white people, etc.) is that some of the skulls have hair with a red coloration.

This should be the least cause for alarm since there are so many explanations for it:

  1. People are vain. If they don’t like their hair color, they change it. I don’t know the prevalence of bleaching or dying hair in the new world (or if it has even been studied), but there is evidence for it in the old word for sure. Hair can be bleached rather easily, by oxidizing the eumelanin pigment within, leaving a blond or red color as the pheomelanin is harder to break down. Eumelanin is the type of melanin in hair that control the dark pigments like black and brown. Pheomelanin is the type that controls the lighter pigments of yellow and red. We all have both.

    If you are tired of your dark hair or want to be set apart, you bleach it. One method of bleaching in antiquity was the use of urine, which contains ammonia. If you’re hair is going gray and you want to maintain the appearance of youth, you applied a dye. Peruvians were adept at using dyes. Dyes fade over time.

  2. In death, much happens to the body. Cells begin to cool immediately, bacteria begin the process of decomposition. The chemical reactions and interactions might vary from interment to interment due to humidity, acidity, temperature, air flow, etc. In short, the body itself may act as a bleaching agent for the hair, oxidizing the less hardy eumelanin, leaving intact the more resilient pheomelanin with its red pigmentation.
  3. People in antiquity wore wigs. Again, I’m unsure of the practices in the new world, but in ancient Egypt, there are many examples of wigs. Nits found in ancient combs reveal the prevalence of lice and it may have been favorable to shave the scalp for hygiene. Wigs in antiquity have been found more than once in the old world. Perhaps analysis of the hair on the Peruvian skull might reveal alpaca!
  4. We all have pheomelanin pigments in our hair. 1-2% of the world’s population are redheads. While the prevalence of red hair in South America during pre-Columbian times is probably less than this, it wasn’t zero. What we don’t know is how a red-headed person might have been treated by pre-Columbian cultures in the Americas. Would they have had some special status? Would they have been ostracized? Perhaps they had no special treatment at all.

The bottom line is, the presence of red hair on skeletonized human remains in Peru is not evidence for aliens, nephilim, giants, or pre-Columbian contact.

Pseudoscience proponents like Brien Foerster and the “team” that was featured in the video showing the pretended collection of data for DNA testing are missing two important things in their quest to prove their pre-conceived conclusions.

The first is the actual application of science. Chase Kloetzke, who claims to be a forensic specialist clearly isn’t the specialist she’d like her “fans” to believe. Otherwise the protocols exhibited in the video would have been realistic rather than pretended (no exposed skin and hair during data collection for instance). We might also have expected Aaron Judkins, the “biblical archaeologist,” to know better. Instead, he’s wearing a cowboy hat along with his exposed skin. We’d expect more from someone who’s supposed to have a Ph.D. Joe Taylor is the guy we’d expect the least from. He hails from a Texas creationist museum. But you’d think the two allegedly qualified people in the room would have kept him and that scruff of a beard far away from the sampling. The DNA sampling was a joke to watch and these folk were going through a pretense of “doing science.”

The second thing they totally miss is that they’re dealing with human remains. The lack of regard and utter disrespect for what was once two living people is difficult to watch. While they are important cultural objects with much to tell about their culture and history, these chuckleheads appeared to show little regard for who they were. This is evident in their desire to fulfill preconceived notions of “aliens” and mythical connections to crackpot ideas about “nephilim.” The very idea that the cultures of these two individuals are incapable of explaining the deformations of their skulls is not only short-sighted, it’s racists and ethnocentric at its core.

Fore more information on melanin in hair, the changes that can occur post-mortem to it and mummification in general, here’s two good references:

Houck, M.M. and Siegel, J.A. (2015) Fundamentals of Forensic Science, 3rd ed. New York: Academic Press

Lynnerup, Niels (2007). Mummies. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology. 50, 162-190.

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About Carl Feagans 332 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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