The Naked Truth [Preview]

Our nearly hairless skin was a key factor in the emergence of other human traits

In Brief

  • Humans are the only primate species that has mostly naked skin.
  • Loss of fur was an adaptation to changing environmental conditions that forced our ancestors to travel longer distances for food and water.
  • Analyses of fossils and genes hint at when this transformation to bare skin occurred.
  • The evolution of hairlessness made way for the emergence of large brains and symbolic thought.

Among primates, humans are unique in having nearly naked skin. Every other member of our extended family has a dense covering of fur—from the short, black pelage of the howler monkey to the flowing copper coat of the orangutan—as do most other mammals. Yes, we humans have hair on our heads and elsewhere, but compared with our relatives, even the hairiest person is basically bare.

How did we come to be so denuded? Scholars have pondered this question for centuries. Finding answers has been difficult, however: most of the hallmark transitions in human evolution—such as the emergence of upright walking—are recorded directly in the fossils of our predecessors, but none of the known remains preserves irrefutable impressions of human skin. In recent years, though, researchers have realized that the fossil record does contain indirect hints about our transformation from hirsute to hairless. Thanks to these clues and insights gleaned over the past decade from genomics and physiology, I and others have pieced together a compelling account of why and when humans shed their fur. In addition to explaining a very peculiar quirk of our appearance, the scenario suggests that naked skin itself played a crucial role in the evolution of other characteristic human traits, including our large brain and dependence on language.

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