African Hair Diversity

About

Tina Lasisi. University of Cambridge. This blog is dedicated to my research on African Hair Diversity.
Email: otrl2@cam.ac.uk African Hair Diversity

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We now have an eventbrite for Saturday, so come and get your free ticket and learn something new. 

Another vlog of a particpant’s experience - enjoy, it’s bound to make you laugh!

A vlog from a happy participant! For those of you who were wondering how the whole process works and whether I’ll be taking too much hair….

Saturday, the 26th of October, the event African Hair: Evolution & History will take place in Cambridge. 

Programme:

12:00 – 15:00 – Guests are invited to visit the Afro Combs exhibition
15.00 – 15:05 – Pick up from Fitzwilliam Museum (courtyard entrance)
15:30 – 16:30 – Talks on African Hair: Evolution & History
16:30 – 18:00 – Refreshments and opportunity to participate in African Hair Diversity Study

One more link to the event for good measure!

 

Please come along to one of the drop-in sessions in October!

They will be held in London (Strand) and it will take only 10 minutes of your time, so if you have a few minutes this Friday or next, please do drop by and bring friends!

https://www.facebook.com/africanhairdiversity/events

What is biological anthropology?

As the name suggests, it is a subject that studies humans from a biological perspective. It is quite a diverse field, so you may come across biological anthropologists who look at human evolution by studying fossils, or genetics, but there are also those who look at non-human primates to understand humans as a biological species. 

As a biological anthropologist, you can also consider living human diversity, which is what I am interested in. Looking at human diversity, you can ask such questions as: “Why are some people able to live at high altitudes?”, “Why are some people resistant to malaria?” or “Why do people vary in the shape and colour of their hair?” - which is what this study is essentially about. 

I’m Caribbean. Can I participate?

Of course! Participation is open to anyone of African descent. The title of the study merely reflects that this study regards peoples who were “recently” African (~500 years).  

How much hair do you need?

Very little! Around 100mg to be exact, which may not mean much to you, but it looks like this:

image

Left: 120mg of my own hair in a plastic bag.

Centre: a teabag (Nettle tea, in case you were wondering)

Right: approx. 150-200mg of my own hair, freshly snipped for this photo-op. 

Now, just to be clear, I need to cut the hair from the rootAt the end of the day, know that I am your friend, I do not want you to suffer (aesthetically) as a result of helping me with my project, so, I make sure I get the hair from the back of your head, from a place it won’t be noticed.Also, it will grow back. I promise.  

Here is photographic evidence that you won’t even notice it’s missing:

image

(You can’t even see what’s been cut!) 

Do you have ethical approval for this?

Yes, I do. Here is a link to the letter of approval.

Are you going to clone me?/Are you going to use my DNA for “…”?

No, I am not. Currently, I am severely lacking in cloning-skills. But more importantly, hair that is cut, as opposed to hair that is plucked, is extremely unlikely to yield usable DNA (which is why agenices who do DNA-testing, for whatever reason, usually require plucked samples with the root still on). Also, my ethical approval does not include permission for genetic work.

I have locs. Can I participate?

The easy answer is yes, you can. However, as I’ve mentioned above, the hair needs to be cut from the root, so you would be missing an entire loc. Depending on how big your locs are, that might be quite noticeable. Furthermore, I would have to unpick the entire loc to get at the individual strands, and I am not quite sure how this may affect the structure of the hair. I am very willing to try, but I doubt I will have enough participants with locs to study this properly.

My hair is braided/twisted/in protective styling. Can I participate?

Yes. The only thing you need to do is make sure you can undo/redo your hair at the moment you’ll be donating hair. A simple puff/ponytail or loose hairstyle is probably your best option on the day of participation.

I have very short hair (1-3 inches). Can I participate?

Yes! I’ve had quite a few participants who agreed to donate hair on a trip to the barbershop. So, if you are about to get your hair barbed, please let me know! I can snip a bit right before you sit on the barber’s chair, and he’ll fix your do before anyone even notices. 

What is a spectrometer?

What the spectrometer does is focus lights of different colours on a small area of skin and measure how much light is reflected (this essentially flashes light at your skin – something you will not even feel). This gives us an objective measure of skin colour. The reason I am taking skin colour measurements, while this study is about hair, is that certain genes are known to affect the pigmentation (colour) throughout your body. By knowing skin reflectance we can consider whether, for example, hair colour varies independently of skin colour in Africans. 

Here’s a picture of a participant having a spectrophotometric reading taken: 

image

In short, the title of my dissertation is ‘Quantitative Variation of African Hair Pigmentation and Morphology’, which essentially translates to ‘A study of differences in the colour and shape of African Hair’

What is the purpose of this study?

Improving our knowledge of African hair is important to our understanding of human evolution. While much anthropological research is carried out on human origins and diversity, people are sometimes wary of studying differences between populations, as such differences can wrongfully be interpreted as ‘racial’ differences. In the past, much anthropological work on traits such as skin colour has placed various populations in groups according to race. However, nowadays, such grouping is considered inaccurate and unscientific and these have been replaced by more objective studies which show that skin colour is a continuous trait, meaning that you cannot separate populations or individuals into separate groups. Regarding hair, despite the fact that we do have technology to study it in a similar objective manner, most studies consider different ‘types’ of hair as separate groups. We know that hair varies among and between human populations and, currently, scientific interest in how it differs between people exists. Yet, while diversity of non-African hair is being –studied and interest has been shown in its origins, African hair is still simplistically discussed as a particular “type” of hair. The little work that does mention African hair treats it as a homogeneous trait that spans over an entire continent, but, at present, the work has not yet been done to say whether that is actually true. So, the research I am carrying out aims to look at a trans-African sample of individuals and measure how much variation we can observe to answer questions such as: “What range of colour does African hair show?”, “What is the range of its shape and thickness?”, “What kind of differences are there between and within populations? (i.e. thickness, curvature of curls etc.)” Answering these questions might ultimately help us understand why we evolved the uniquely human trait of extremely curled hair.  

But, in a broader sense…

The purpose of this study is to add to the body of knowledge that exists on African diversity. While it is well-known to anthropologists that Africans are more diverse than any other population, it is not uncommon for to see studies take a single African population (e.g. Nigerians, Kenyans etc) as representative for the entire continent. 

What happens if you choose to participate?

If you agree to participate in the study, you will be asked to fill in a questionnaire and a reading of your skin will be taken with a device called a spectrometer, and you will be asked to donate some hair. The questionnaire has two parts. The 1st part will ask you about your ancestry. The 2nd part of the questionnaire will ask you to detail your hair treatment history. After you have filled in the questionnaire, I will use the spectrometer to take a reading from your inner arm – an area of the body that generally does not tan. What the spectrometer does is focus lights of different colours on a small area of skin and measure how much light is reflected (this essentially flashes light at your skin – something you will not even feel). This gives us an objective measure of skin colour. The reason I am taking skin colour measurements, while this study is about hair, is that certain genes are known to affect the pigmentation (colour) throughout your body. By knowing skin reflectance we can consider whether, for example, hair colour varies independently of skin colour in Africans. Finally, the hair sample would be taken from the back of your head. This would be done by parting your hair with two clean hair grips and snipping about a bit of hair with a pair of clean scissors – all of which will be painless. 

When all the hair samples are collected, I will return to Cambridge where I will run some analyses on the colour to get objective measurements of differences and hair thickness and curvature over the next few months. After this I will try and see what kind of differences there are between the samples and whether any particular variable can explain them. 

If at any point you decide that you do not want to take part, you are free to withdraw your data without any questions

After the hair has been collected

After data collection is complete, it will take a few months to analyse everything and write it up. So, expect to hear about this around June 2014. Hopefully, this will be published somewhere for all to access. Either way, if you are interested, I can provide you with a copy once it is all on paper. 

Beyond that…

I am extremely intrigued by what I am studying, and I do not believe that the next few months will be anywhere near enough time to research this to the full extent, so it is my hope that after I graduate I will be able to continue researching this subject during a PhD. Ultimately, I would like to provide people of African descent with accessible knowledge about their hair and why it is the way it is. 

If you’d like to participate these are the places I will be over the next month, so please do email/message me that you’re going and I will be there waiting to for you and your hair! (Also, feel free to ask me to meet you somewhere else)

I am based in Cambridge, so if you are coming here, do let me know and we can meet up somewhere.

September

26.10.13 - Cambridge

11.10.13 - London, Strand

04.10.13 - London, Strand

14.09.13 - Cambridge. Afro Combs Exhibition. 

10.09.13 - London - Barking

09.09.13 - London - Chadwell-Heath

07.09.13 - London - (Barking & Croydon)

06.09 13. -  (North-East) London 

My name is Tina Lasisi. I am a 3rd year undergraduate at the University of Cambridge studying Biological Anthropology.

Why am I doing this?

As a Biological Anthropologist you can study a number of things, and one of the subjects I am interested in is human diversity. I got interested in looking into hair diversity, and I found that there was actually quite little research about this beyond people categorizing hair into different “types” (which isn’t particularly scientific, or accurate for that matter). I realised, that of the little research that existed on hair, an even smaller amount of it was regarding African hair and so I decided to write my dissertation on this topic. In all honesty, it wasn’t just the lack of information on African hair that bothered me, but the misinformation, and the negative way in which it was often discussed (as much of the research on African hair is done by cosmetological scientists, who see it as a problem which needs to be fixed). 

People often discuss Afro hair, but we don’t really know what it is, and why it exists. I thought this unique human feature deserved a bit more attention and that’s pretty much why I’m doing it. 

Anything else?

I’m 21, I am Bulgarian/Nigerian but I’ve lived in Holland most of my life. I’m a Pisces… I think I’m running out of things to say, but feel free to ask more.

If you’re looking for a way to get involved, here’s what you can do:

1. Participate

To make this work, I need participants. No hair, no research. Click the link “The Study” to find out more about what you would need to do as a participant, but in short, I just need you to fill in a form and donate small hair sample. Click here to see how much “a small hair sample” is, and click here to see how to prepare yourself for participation. 

Check the link “Coming to a place near you” to see whether you can come to any of these places at these dates, but otherwise do not hesitate to e-mail me and we can set up another time and place.

2. Spread the word

If you’re a hairdresser, barber, event organiser, you can be of great help by allowing me to visit your event/shop. If I can sit in your salon/barbershop for a few hours and ask your customers whether they want to participate, it would really help me to get the samples I need.

If you are organising an event relating to Black culture in or around London, and you would not mind letting me speak to your guests about my project, I could also recruit potential participants.

Anyone else can still help by recommending an event or hair salon I can visit to collect samples.

If you’re a natural hair blogger, and you like what I’m doing, tell your followers - the more participants, the better the research!

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