Image of reconstructed faces of three early humans in profile view.

White Skin Developed in Europe Only As Recently as 8,000 Years Ago Say Anthropologists

(Read the article on one page)

The myriad of skin tones and eye colors that humans express around the world are interesting and wonderful in their variety. Research continues on how humans acquired the traits they now have and when, in order to complete the puzzle that is our ancient human history. Now, a recent analysis by anthropologists suggests that the light skin color and the tallness associated with European genetics are relatively recent traits to the continent.

An international team of researchers as headed by Harvard University’s Dr. Iain Mathieson put forth a study at the 84th annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists recently.

Based on 83 human samples from Holocene Europe as analyzed under the 1000 Genomes Project , it is now found that for the majority of the time that humans have lived in Europe, the people had dark skin, and the genes signifying light skin only appear within the past 8,000 years. This recent and relatively quick process of natural selection suggests to researchers that the traits which spread rapidly were advantageous within that environment, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) .

This dramatic evidence suggests modern Europeans do not appear as their long ancient ancestors did.

MORE

Spreading Genetics

The samples are derived from a wide range of ancient populations, rather than a few individuals, and they supplied researchers with five specific genes associated with skin color and diet.

AAAS reports that the “modern humans who came out of Africa to originally settle Europe about 40,000 years are presumed to have had dark skin, which is advantageous in sunny latitudes. And the new data confirm that about 8500 years ago, early hunter-gatherers in Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary also had darker skin: They lacked versions of two genes—SLC24A5 and SLC45A2—that lead to depigmentation and, therefore, pale skin in Europeans today. […]

Then, the first farmers from the Near East arrived in Europe; they carried both genes for light skin. As they interbred with the indigenous hunter-gatherers, one of their light-skin genes swept through Europe, so that central and southern Europeans also began to have lighter skin. The other gene variant, SLC45A2, was at low levels until about 5800 years ago when it swept up to high frequency.”

This differed from the situation farther north. Ancient remains from southern Sweden 7,700 years ago were found to have the gene variants indicating light skin and blonde hair, and another gene, HERC2/OCA2, which causes blue eyes. This indicated to researchers that ancient hunter-gatherers of northern Europe were already pale and blue-eyed. This light skin trait would have been advantageous in the regions of less sunlight.

Natural Selection

Mathieson and colleagues do not specify in the study why the genes were favored and spread as quickly as they did, but it is suggested that Vitamin D absorption likely played a role. Ancient hunter-gatherers in Europe also could not digest milk 8,000 years ago. The ability to do so only came about 4,300 years ago.

Paleoanthropologist Nina Jablonski of Pennsylvania State University notes that people in less sunny climates required different skin pigmentations in order to absorb and synthesize Vitamin D. The pale skin was advantageous in the region, as well was the ability to digest milk.

“Natural selection has favored two genetic solutions to that problem—evolving pale skin that absorbs UV more efficiently or favoring lactose tolerance to be able to digest the sugars and vitamin D naturally found in milk,” writes AAAS.

This new research follows related studies on pre-agricultural European genomes and modern humans in Europe before the rise of farming.

Artist’s depiction of Stone Age peoples

Artist’s depiction of Stone Age peoples ( Wikimedia Commons )

MORE

DNA taken from the wisdom tooth of a 7,000-year-old human found in Spain in 2006 overturned the popular image of light-skinned European hunter-gatherers. The study revealed that the individual had dark hair and the dark-skinned genes of an African. However, the man had blue eyes, an unexpected find by researchers. The hunter-gatherer is the oldest known individual in Europe found to have blue eyes.

Artist’s impression of a blue-eyed hunter gatherer

Artist’s impression of a blue-eyed hunter gatherer (Credit: PELOPANTON / CSIC )

Comments

Steve Dalman, I recommend reading more extensively on hybridization, as, while hybridization does have a suppressive effect on fertility, absolute sterility is a rarity. It is even likely that speciation generally arises most often from hybridization.

Indeed, fertility in H. sapiens is reduced compared to Chimpanzees, indicating that we are very likely to be the product of hybridization.

If the Neanderthals were indeed a separate species modern humans could have mated with them but produced only mules ,or halfbreed offspring who would seldom have produced offspring of their own,as is the case with crosses between asses and horses.Either Neanderthals were not a separate species ,which would explain the amount of their genetic material that survives,or the number of fertile mules was much higher than is the case with the horse/jackass cross, or the cross breeding was prolific.

I don't know why the website messed my comment up and replaced the last part with the title to the article.

Despite the fact that I disagreed with the statements put forth in the article, I eagerly began reading the comments, initially impressed with the quality of the alter proposals presented, although I took issue with many of them as well. However, the farther into the comments I read, the dumber the comments became, until I finally just had to stop reading them before I reached the last few, not wishing to fill my brain with garbage the White Skin Developed in Europe Only As Recently as 8,000 Years Ago Say Anthropologistseven wish to share my own thoughts. :-(

Albinism is a different thing. Most white people are not albinos. Why don't you educate yourself about albinism?

You almost have a point. Many albinos are persecuted in Africa because of baseless superstitions about them.

Pages

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Human Origins

Adam and Eve (1640s) by Jacob Jordaens.
The common male and female ancestors of human beings are popularly known as “Genetic Adam” and “Genetic Eve.” A study conducted by researchers at the University of Sheffield claims all men can trace their origins to one male ancestor, ‘Adam’, who lived approximately 209,000 years ago. This places ‘Adam’ within the same time frame as ‘Eve’ - the ‘mother of all women’ – and provides evidence for the existence of a prehistoric ‘Adam and Eve.’

Ancient Places

The eerie mansion that is today known as Loftus Hall.
Driving along the isolated road that runs down the scenic Hook Peninsula in Ireland’s Ancient East, it is easy to spot the mansion that has earned itself the reputation as the most haunted house in Ireland. If ever a building fit the stereotype of a home haunted by its bloody and tragic past, this was it...

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article