Dark Skin and Blue Eyes: European Hunter-Gatherers Did Not Fit with Common Representations
The popular image of the light-skinned European hunter-gatherer is not correct. DNA taken from a 7,000-year-old wisdom tooth found in Spain in 2006 shows a different story. A study of the tooth shows that the man who owned it had dark hair, blue eyes, and the dark-skinned genes of an African - though scientists don’t know what the person’s exact skin tone was. The blue-eyed gene is one of the most interesting finds because it was previously believed to have been a later arriving trait brought by farmers who entered the continent more than 5,000 years ago.
The 2014 study was the first to analyze a pre-agricultural European genome. It was led by Inigo Olalde of the Institut de Biologia Evolutiva in Barcelona and published in the journal Nature – providing significant insight into the appearance of modern humans before farming arose in Europe.
Drawing of what the man may have looked like, based on the information recovered in his genes. (ileon.com/CC BY NC ND 3.0)
The tooth came from the skeleton of a Mesolithic man who was found in a Cantabrian cave near León in northwest Spain, in 2006. This man was found alongside the skeleton of another Mesolithic man. Both died in their early 30s and their remains were well-preserved in the cave’s cool environment. The age of their bones and other artifacts found at the site, such as reindeer teeth which had holes to string them onto the men’s clothing, showed the researchers that these two men were hunter-gatherers.
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- Farmers and Hunter-Gatherers coexisted but did not mix for two millenia
Skeleton of one of the men discovered in the Spanish cave. (J.M. Vidal Encina/www.ileon.com/CC BY NC ND 3.0)
It took several attempts before the team of scientists managed to recreate the full genome from the DNA of a wisdom tooth root. When they finally did, they were shocked. Dr. Carles Lalueza-Fox from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona explained the first of the fascinating discoveries made by the researchers:
“The biggest surprise was to discover that this individual possessed African versions of the genes that determine the light pigmentation of the current Europeans, which indicates that he had dark skin. You see a lot of reconstructions of these people hunting and gathering and they look like modern Europeans with light skin. You never see a reconstruction of a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer with dark skin”.
Skull of the skeleton from which the DNA was analyzed. (El Blog de “Acebedo”)
Following that find, the scientists were also amazed to see the man’s genes for blue eyes – an unexpected trait because it was previously believed that blue eyes were a more recent development. The presence of genetic markers for blue eyes means the Mesolithic man is the oldest example of a European with blue eyes. Dr. Lalueza-Fox said that this result was even more of a shock for the team than the Mesolithic man’s skin color, “Even more surprising was to find that he possessed the genetic variations that produce blue eyes in current Europeans, resulting in a unique phenotype [physical type] in a genome that is otherwise clearly northern European.”
A 2008 study showed that blue eyes probably began as a genetic mutation approximately 10,000 years ago. The earliest examples of this trait are believed to have arisen around the Black Sea. The 2014 study suggested that anyone who has blue eyes today has ancestors who came from the same family which first had the mutation near the Black Sea. The 2014 study’s results mean people with the gene for blue eyes made their way across Europe before agriculture took precedence over hunting and gathering. Farming is also said to have been spread from the east to the west.
- White Skin Developed in Europe Only As Recently as 8,000 Years Ago Say Anthropologists
- Pre-Maya hunters and farmers may have collaborated in building temples
- North African Neolithic Hunter-Gatherers Eschewed Domestic Grains for Wild Plants
Blue eyes arose as a genetic mutation about 10,000 years ago. (Look Into My Eyes/CC BY 2.0)
No one knows for certain why blue eyes became common amongst ancient Europeans. Two possibilities are: it may have helped prevent eye disorders in the low light of European winters, or blue eyes were seen as attractive in a mate.
Finally, it’s worth noting that researchers discovered more about the Mesolithic man than just his appearance. Their findings suggest that he had an immune system similar to people living today and he was lactose intolerant. The similarity between his immune system and modern humans was also a surprise. It was previously believed that many genes for immunity also arose alongside the popularity of farming – with disease spreading more quickly in stationary settlements and close contact with animals. One suggestion for the reason hunter-gatherers may have held similar immunity genes is because they were also exposed to diseases such as cholera.
Top image: Artist's impression of prehistoric hunters. Source: We Have Concerns