I got an email a while back and this post is in answer to that email but first here is the email with the name changed to protect the reader:
Dear Dr. Peron:
I realize you are an anthropologist and not a medical doctor but do you know anything about excessive body hair growth at birth? If so, can you put up a post about it? Here’s why I am asking you this question.
When I was born I had a reddish “fur” all over my newborn body. Probably it was hair but my grandparents described it as “fur” like that seen in a little monkey or puppy. I also had a projecting jaw that was corrected by orthodontics when I was about 13 years old, thankfully. I also had a somewhat flat nose and pointed ears. In fact, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. said I looked more like a ” baby ape” than a “human baby.” I lost the “fur” during the first few years of my life but retained a colorless hair type all over my body which kind of shines like a blond color when I am in the sun. I know this might all sound freaky but my family is reluctant to talk about this and my mother gets very angry and absolutely refuses to discuss it whenever I bring it up. Additionally, when my father arrived at the hospital (he was off somewhere and had to travel) he took one look at me and angrily said, “That’s not my son!” and stormed out of the hospital never to return. Needless to say he and I did not have a very good relationship when he was alive, unfortunately. I just want to know if you’ve ever heard of anything like this and if you can post a bit about it if you have.
Miguel I’m not claiming to be an expert in this subject but here are some things that might aid in your understanding of this phenomena. Also, note that things like this DO happen so you are NOT alone.
Before I begin let me define a few terms. First is the term “atavism.” An “atavism” is a term used in biology to describe an “evolutionary throwback.” Traits appear in a species or individual that have generally disappeared generations before. Atavisms can occur in several ways. One way, and the most common, is when genes for previously existing phenotypical features are preserved in DNA and they become expressed through a mutation that knocks out the overriding genes for the new traits OR makes the old traits override the new one(s). A number of traits can vary as a result of shortening of fetal development of a trait (neoteny) OR by prolonging of it (neoteny). In such a case a shift in the time a trait is allowed to develop before it is fixed can bring about an ancestral phenotype. I do not wish to insult you so please do not take what I’m writing that way. What you are describing comes closest to the ancient human ancestor species known as Homo habilis (aka: Tool Man, Handyman, et al) minus the heavy brow ridge. This species existed roughly between 2.1–1.5 mya. That in my mind is significant and if you have any pictures of you as a newborn with this condition I would be HIGHLY interested in taking a look at them.
“Atavism” is also a term used in the social sciences describing a cultural tendency of reversion. And example of this would be people in a modern era reverting to ways of acting and thinking of a former time. Further, the word “atavism” comes from the Latin term “atavus” meaning “ancestor” or “ancestral.”
Examples of atavisms include hind legs seen on whales or snakes, extra toes on horses as seen in their ancestors, and teeth in chickens. Atavisms are also sometimes seen in humans. For instance, color blindness is considered an atavism.
Another term is called “vestigiality.” This involves the retention during the evolutionary process of genetically determined structures or attributes that have lost some or all of their ancestral function in any given species. A human infant born with a small tail (called a Vestigial Tail, Coccygeal Projection, et al) would be an example of this and, honestly, it’s more common that you might think. Another example is the human appendix. The “Darwin-tubercle” is a vestigial form of the tip of the ear seen in mammalian ancestors of humans like that seen in the ears of the macaque. Such vestigial traits can appear, develop, and persist or they may disappear through various stages during the life of the organism, human or other wise.
Some humans have large teeth that are larger than what most people would consider “normal.” This would also be considered an atavism as they are more like teeth found in other primates than modern humans. Now here is an atavism that is very WEIRD……………
Medical literature has noted upon occasion something called a “snake heart.” What this is is the presence of coronary circulation and myocardial architecture in humans that resembles that of a REPTILIAN HEART!! Actually, I find this atavism pretty weird yet highly interesting! Imagine being born with a heart like a SNAKE? The mammalian heart (normal humans) has 4 chambers but in some humans medical research has noted a 3 chambered heart which is typically found in reptiles not humans. It gives a whole new meaning to Adam, Eve, and the snake in the Garden story LOL!! More about this phenomena in a future post 🙂
Let us now consider a certain condition associated with these terms that is also “interesting”…………
I’m sure you’ve heard all of the tales about “werewolves” but what most people don’t know is that there is actually a condition that explains this and it is called “Hypertrichosis.” This condition is also known as “Ambras Syndrome.” What it is, is an abnormal amount of body hair growth and when it is rather extensive another term is applied, “Werewolf Syndrome.”
Excessive growth of body hair on a human gives the appearance of the mythical “werewolf” and this may be where many of our werewolf legends and tales began. There are actually two types of hypertrichosis. Generalized Hypertrichosis relates to excessive hair growth all over the body. Localized Hypertrichosis relates to excessive hair growth on certain areas of the body. This condition can be congenital (present at birth) or acquired later in life. Further, most of the time it has been found that this excessive body hair growth does not occur in the pubic area, face, and axillary areas. However there are some noted exceptions to this.
Congenital forms (present at birth) of hypertrichosis are caused by genetic mutations. They are extremely rare. In this form the excessive body hair is always present at birth. I am NOT talking the normal “down” that many newborns have which falls off shortly after birth. Here I am talking hair growth way beyond that even to the point that the infant may look as if it has fur rather than body hair! Some families who have had newborns with this condition refer to them as looking like a “newborn puppy” or “little monkeys.” Often time this excessive congenital body hair is black or a reddish color.
Congenital hypertrichosis lanuginosa is a condition in which excessive body hair growth is obvious at birth as the infant is completely covered in lanugo hair, a thin and soft usually unpigmented downy hair that is sometimes found on the body of a fetus or newborn human. Typically, this lanugo hair is shed by the newborn before birth and replaced by “vellus hair” (short, thin, slightly colored or barely noticeable thin hair that develops over most of a persons body during childhood. In a person with congenital hypertrichosis lanuginosa the hair remains after birth and as the person ages the lanugo hair may thin leaving behind only patches of hypertrichosis OR it may change to being colorless and may not be noticeable on the person unless, of course, it is long hair.
Congenital generalized hypertrichosis is present at birth and causes males to have excessive facial and upper body hair. Women with this condition display body hair less so. The palms of the hands, soles of the feet, and mucous membranes are not affected.
Congenital Terminal Hypertrichosis is present at birth as well. This form of congenital hypertrichosis is characterized by the presence of fully colored terminal body hair that covers the entire body! Terminal hair is thick, long, often dark in comparison to vellus hair. This type of hair is usually found on the face, chest, abdominal area, arms, and feet. This type of hypertrichosis is usually accompanied by “gingival hyperplasia” which is an increased size of the gums in the mouth. It is this form of hypertrichosis that is responsible for the WEREWOLF SYNDROME due to the thick, dark or reddish body hair that resembles FUR more than hair!! In the past, especially, it is people who had this condition that were put in circus sideshows and tagged as something like,
“SEE IT NOW! The AMAZING
LIVING APE MAN!!”
or whatever……………………………… 🙂
Acquired hypertrichosis occurs AFTER BIRTH. There are a number of things that can cause this type of excessive body hair growth including medication side effects, cancers, and eating disorders. This condition is usually resolved with successful medial treatment.
This all said I must also note that hypertrichosis is often mistakenly classified as “Hirsutism.” Hirsutism is a type of hypertrichosis that is EXCLUSIVE to women and children! It is the result of excessive androgen sensitive hair growth. Women and children with this condition exhibit hair growth like that seen in adult males including chest and back hair. This condition can also be congenital (present at birth) or acquired and it has been linked to excessive male hormones that can also cause severe cases of acne, deepening voice, irregular menstrual periods, and a more masculine body shape in females. Increased androgen levels (male hormone) are the primary cause in most cases of hirutism. Androgen levels can be reduced with medical treatment and medications and, in fact, some birth control pills can even reduce androgen levels.
I hope this helps in your understanding of this condition Miguel. I’m not an expert in this condition as I said. Obviously, genes play an important part in this phenomena. Biologists might say you were born looking like an evolutionary throwback and as you began to age you became looking more like a modern human. That is interesting and I’d like to know the stages you progressed through as you lost these atavisms.
Finally, there is no need to feel shame over this condition. It is more common than you might think. I’m saddened that this was the cause of the poor relationship between your father and yourself. However, I understand your father’s reaction upon seeing you for the first time. You physical appearance most likely shocked him as you looked like something he never expected. Too bad that he did not get over it and establish a healthy father-son relationship with you. Fear and shock do funny things to people and they sometimes cause us to act in ways that are odd. Avoidance is a common reaction to fear and shock, in that, we avoid the things that make us afraid or shock us. I’m unsure if your father avoided you but I’m sure there was always that memory in his mind of seeing you for the first time and the shock and fear he may have felt. I hope you will understand this and, Miguel, forgive him. His reaction to you was a NORMAL REACTION. Thank you for your question and I hope this post helps. 🙂