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


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.


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 )


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 )

Previous research published in 2008 found that the earliest mutations in the eye-color genes that led to the evolution of blue eyes probably occurred about 10,000 years ago in individuals living in around the Black Sea.

The surprising aspect of the findings is that while it is fundamental to natural selection that advantageous genetic attributes spread, it is not often a speedy process. The study shows that these genetic pale skin traits swept across Europe speedily, and that phenomenon is of particular interest to researchers.

The preprint study “Eight thousand years of natural selection in Europe” by Mathieson and colleagues has been published in the online journal BioRxiv.

These new findings shed light on humanity’s genetic past, giving us a clearer vision of our ancient origins.

Featured Image: Image of reconstructed faces of three early humans in profile view. Credit: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History .

By Liz Leafloor


No, sorry, you are wrong about Asians and their skin color/s. If you have ever lived in East Asia you will know why.
Apart from a small minority, the overwhelming majority of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese (who are diverse and cannot reasonably be given a catch-all label 'Han Chinese') easily tan even if their skin looks white.

It is this ability to easily turn brown and darker under normal sunlight that distinguishes East Asians with light skin from white people. Genetically white people lack melanin but the East Asians overwhelmingly have the genes for dark pigmentation.

Most Japanese and Koreans go incredibly brown to even dark under the sun. Some white people of course get suntans but others cannot even tan. The freckles they have are a desperate attempt to stave off sunlight which explains the mottled skin of many people of Irish and Scottish descent in harsh climates such as that of Australia or the similar climates in US states.

Some Japanese originated around what we call Malaysia today and others in Polynesian areas. If you ever live in Japan you will notice these types. They are more common in the Kyushu and western Japan regions. Some of them can turn dark brown under the sun in summer without trying to get a suntan.

Koreans, too, can go incredibly dark under the sun. Despite a lot of xenophobic/racist propaganda that still persists in Korean society and from racist Korean groups on the internet who claim that Koreans are the most far from Africans genetically, Koreans also carry the genes for dark pigmentation that white people do not.

As for the Chinese, a huge population of fairly diverse origins. Yet again, most of them with light skin do not stay that way under sunlight, and also normally have complexions that overwhelmingly are not white.

If you can't be bothered to read the article, why bother commenting? It very clearly says that this research applies only to central and southern Europe, and that other populations already had evolved lighter skin. They also name the genes discovered, so opinions are irrelevant. Moron.

Asians, particularly northern Asians such as Koreans, Japanese and Chinese have skin the same shade of white as most Europeans. The idea of "white" being only 8 thousand yeas old is rubbish. Is this study the result of some government grant? I want my money back if it is.

"The oldest discovered" does not mean "THE oldest".
We'll have to await new discoveries.

Probably when the Nephilims mated with humans. It's in the bible. :)


Next article