How I got here

Reading time: 5 mins (877 words)

How I got here. Or the story of how asking a single question can consume 5+ years of your life.

Believe it or not, I didn’t grow up wanting to study hair. And, honestly, I don’t think I even knew what the word ‘anthropology’ meant 10 years ago…

Like most other things that have happened in my life, I kinda stumbled onto this gig. In hindsight, I really feel like, rather than having a career path or an academic path, I’ve pretty much just impulsively gone down a series of interesting rabbit holes.

 

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Actual footage of me, moments before going down said rabbit hole, uttering the famous last words: “lemme just google this real quick”

 

But, to tell you the story of how I ended studying hair, we must start at the moment I stumbled onto anthropology…

I studied Archaeology & Anthropology at Cambridge University, but originally  I wanted to apply for Japanese Studies. My family moved around a lot when I was a kid, and since I had a bit of a knack for languages, it made sense to me that I should study a foreign language and/or culture.

Also, yes, wanting to study Japanese may have been in part related to spending a large portion of my teens watching too much anime…

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(In hindsight, the fact that my site icon is a literal chibi may have been a giveaway here…)

But after thinking about it a bit longer, I was worried that focusing on just one language and culture might be a little too narrow. So, when I was flipping through the course catalog, I saw ‘Archaeology & Anthropology’…

While I don’t remember exactly what the description was, I’m sure that reading it went something like this:

“Humans? Why yes, I usually like those” 

“Archaeology? Well, I did really enjoy Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones” 

“Culture? I don’t think I have much of it, so it might be good to load up on that!”

“Evolution? I was actually pretty good at that in Pokémon – I’m down” 

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Spoiler alert: I found out this is, in fact, NOT how evolution occurs. Major bummer.

Now, fast forward to me somehow getting accepted into the university…

 

My first year, I was exposed to a lot of new knowledge, but most importantly to me, I found out that there was a whole branch of Biological Anthropology that focused on human variation!

Until that time, I didn’t really think about the science of human variation. All I knew about human variation was the snippets you catch from popular culture/media (i.e. ‘there is no such thing as race’ and ‘all humans are 99.9% genetically similar’ blah blah blah).

But at university, my classes in Biological Anthropology were awesome!

They introduced me to the evolution of modern humans. I learnt about the migration of modern humans from the African continent:

 

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Rough timeline of the spread of modern humans/Homo sapiens out of Africa.

 

I learnt about how human bodies can evolve adaptations to a particular environment but also that populations being separated for a long time can cause random, neutral physical differences to arise.

But what really got me hooked was the specific examples on the evolution of skin color.

I remember how mind-blowing it was to look at the slides showing how well skin color correlated with distance from the equator and the intensity of the sun.

 

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Map representing average skin color of indigenous populations around the world.

 

 

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Map of the average annual solar intensity around the world.

 

This was very interesting to me personally because, as someone who is half-African (I personally prefer the term ‘Halfrican’) and grew up in Northern Europe, it was frequently pointed out to me that I ‘looked different’.

My skin was dark because I was African and other features were the way they were because I was African. But I never questioned why those features were African; they just were. Like many other people I had some ideas about different populations looking a certain way, and all of a sudden there was so much more depth to the physical differences I could see among people.

Like many other people, I had some ideas about different populations looking a certain way. And all of a sudden, after learning about the evolution of human variation there was a completely different meaning to the physical differences I could see among people.

Even though I thought Biological Anthropology was really cool, I was actually scared to major in it because I thought I didn’t know enough science…

But, after having spoken to a postdoctoral researcher at my college and hearing the words of encouragement I needed, I took a leap of faith and focused my studies in Bio Anth. This postdoc then became my dissertation advisor (hey, Colin!).

In one of my conversations with Colin, I mentioned I had been thinking about how my brother, my father and I all had very tightly curled hair and I was curious about how curly hair had evolved. It was one of those moments like when you ask an adult about random things and you are borderline irritating them…

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But luckily for me, he had a very high tolerance for kids asking annoying, (currently) unanswerable questions.

In fact, rather than side-eyeing me, he was super supportive and said ‘If you can’t find anything on the evolution of hair, maybe that should be your dissertation topic then!’

Fast forward a few years: I went down the rabbit hole and I have a PhD’s worth of questions I need to deal with before I can properly answer my original question: ‘Why did curly hair evolve?’

 

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