What human hair reveals about death’s seasonality

By | November 18, 2020

Max G. Levy writes:

Each wave of Edith Howard Cook’s reddish-blonde hair tells a story. One segment may chronicle an unusually damp San Francisco summer; another may recall a dry December. But read in their entirety, the strands reveal the season in 1876 when 2-year-old Edith passed away.

Archaeologist Jelmer Eerkens helped identify Edith after a construction crew discovered her remains in a backyard in 2016. “I have kids myself,” says Eerkens, an archaeologist at the University of California, Davis. “So, I oftentimes think about living in the 1800s. And children dying was just a common thing.”

By 1900, for example, children under the age of 5 accounted for 30 percent of all deaths in the U.S.—often from tuberculosis and flu, which fluctuate with the seasons. “Your kid gets sick: Are they going to die? Are they going to live? It must have been heart-wrenching,” Eerkens notes.

In a new study published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Eerkens and his colleagues introduce a method to decode the season of an individual’s death using hair. This proof-of-concept effort accurately predicted the season in which Edith died by tracking a specific chemical signature—hydrogen isotopes—in her hair. This work could help tease out how seasonal changes influenced mortality in societies around the world. [Continue reading…]

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