14 March 2012

Mystery of the horned humans

During the 1800s a number of human skeletons were uncovered in a burial mound in Sayre, Pennsylvania by a reputable group of antiquarians. Although finding human remains is fairly common, these skeletons were very odd. Firstly, each of the skeletons was extremely tall and the individuals of all those found would have stood at heights well over 7 foot. However, although this is extremely unusual by itself, it wasn't the strangest thing about them - each of the skulls had two horns that extended upwards from their eyebrows! The skeletons were immediately sent to the American Investigating Museum in Philadelphia (a museum that oddly, has no other reference on the Internet except linked with this story), where they vanished and have never been seen again.

A photograph of one of the horned human skulls found in Sayre that was taken before the skeletons abruptly vanished, never to be seen or heard from again. The skeletons were believed to have been buried in 1200 AD.

This has led to many conspiracy theories and much speculation about whether the skeletons found in Sayre were those of aliens and that they were seized by the US government. However, whilst this is difficult to speculate on, humans having horns is biologically possible and there have been other, better documented cases of such phenomena.

For example, the naturalist Caspari Bartholini mentioned a man with a 12 inch horn growing out of his forehead in his book 'Anatomicae Institutiones Corporis Humani' and there is a well known case of an old women in France presenting her amputated horn to King Louis XIV in 1696. Interestingly, many of the accounts reporting the removal of human horns go onto say that they often grew back. This suggests that they are a genetically controlled tissue that are encoded for by the individuals DNA, possibly due to a gene linked to hair and nail tissues, which obviously, grow continuously. This notion is further supported by a case where a father and son, supposedly, both had horns.

Wang, the 'Human Unicorn' from the 1930s. Note however, that although this is supposed to be genuine case, Wang vanished and did not appear in the media again despite the extensive efforts to find him. There are two possible explanations for this: the photo was a fake or that Wang didn't want to be in the midst of a media storm...

The leading legitimate theory regarding human horns (this blog ignores the popular speculations that they stem from alien DNA), is that they are made from keratin (the protein that forms hair and nails), just like the horns of other mammals. It is believed that the horns are a 'genetic throwback', which are well documented and scientifically supported phenomena, from a time in human evolution before our ancestors had diverged away from those animals that went on to develop horns. The theory assumes that many, if not all, humans carry the genes necessary to produce horns, but in most of us they are inactive and are not used. Our DNA is full of useless and unused genes such as this, called introns, which are essentially just junk DNA. This is why scientists are frequently heard to say that humans share 96% of our DNA with a fruit fly - we do, except that we mostly use completely different genes, which is fairly obvious really...

A baby born with a tail. This is another example of a genetic throwback and is more common then you might think. The tail is normally removed at birth, or when the individual is still relatively young and unlike human horns, do not grow back.

Although the documented cases of horned humans are rare, the mythology and legends of many cultures are full of stories that feature humans with horns. Examples include Satan, who is believed to have horns and cloven hooves; the Minotaur from Greek mythology, which was said to have been a man with the head of a bull; and the Celtic god, Cernunnos. Thus, horned humans may have been appearing throughout human history, have a plausible and legitimate scientific explanation and may have had a deep cultural significance.

A coin featuring Alexander the Great, who is depicted with horns. Historically, horns were believed to signify great wisdom and strength and thus, often represented kingship.

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