Hair. On a head, it can dazzle. In a drain, it can revile — its repulsive potential right up there next to slime, bugs and vomit.
Anthropologists and writers have noted hair as a status symbol in some cultures, and addressed the special variety of disgust that loose strands can rouse: "Detached hair, alienated from its natural location on the body ... becomes dirt, posing the threat of chaos and disorder unless carefully gathered and contained." Hair can house parasite cities (though our grooming habits can also render them extinct). And yet, surprisingly, we don't all choose to go with a bald hairdon't.
Hair anchors deep in human history, providing clues to when our ancestors split from evolutionary relatives, why they shed their ape-like body hair to roam the savanna in the nude, and how they may have chased down their dinners.
"Hair can answer some of the really 'big' questions in archaeology, while at the same time allowing us to gain tiny details of how someone lived their life thousands of years ago at a very intimate level," says Joann Fletcher, a British archaeologist who has analyzed ancient mummy hair for evidence of disease, poisons, diet, trade and coiffing technology.
In contemporary times, hair is a song, a sacred sign, a symbol of youth and energy.
Aside from the paramount purpose of hair — distinguishing a person from a naked mole rat — here are a few more possibilities:
- Grow it. November is the month when millions of men — and some brave women — grow out their mustaches to raise funds for men's health research. The Movember phenomenon started 10 years ago with 30 Aussies and has since raised $450 million in 21 countries.
- Donate it. Locks of Love provides "hair prostheses" to cancer patients and others with medical hair loss.
- Use it for home improvement. Pack it into a plaster wall for extra reinforcement. Or, tuck it into garden corners to serve as a debatable repellent for rodents, slugs and deer.
- Make dough with it. A head of natural, "virgin" hair can go for hundreds of dollars (Calculate the value of yours here). Businesses have used it to make wigs, dolls and even fishing lures. Dreads sell, too.
- Make more dough with it. Dark hair is especially rich in L-cysteine, an amino acid used in dough to keep it squishy and manageable. Top off a hair-derived pizza crust with tomatoes grown in a woven alternative to garden pest control.
- Make art with it. Artists have used human hair to craft necklaces, interactive sound devices, knitted burkas, and even a 7-mile-long multicolored braid. Back in the day, people wore brooches containing the hair of a deceased loved one to remember them by.
- Identify a body with it. Hair can be as valuable in sequencing the genome of a 4,000-year-old mummy as it is in locating the hometown of an unidentified present-day murder victim.
- Set your own world record with it. A woman wove 136 pencils into her hair. A man fit 101 Afro picks in his locks. One daring guy dragged a car more than 300 feet — with his ponytail.
- Break down barriers with it. In a recent survey of more than 1,000 people, the American Mustache Institute found that a "facial hair ceiling" may haunt the American workplace. Despite widespread acceptance of mustaches as appropriate work attire, only 30 percent of those surveyed reported having mustachioed supervisors. It's unclear how many of those supervisors are girls with mustaches.
The Protojournalist is an experiment in reporting. Abstract. Concrete. @NPRtpj