So what did the first Europeans look like?

Were they all red haired? 

It’s claimed the mutation on the  SLC24A5 gene that gives Europeans very pale skin dates to between 6,000 and 12,000 years old. This would give the first immigrants into Europe an Asian tan colour skin. However, the dating of at least two variants of the European red hair gene go back to about 80,000 years.

 “Both African and non-African data suggest that the time to the most recent common ancestor is ~1 million years and that the age of the global 314 variant is 650,00 years. On this time scale, ages for the Eurasian-distributed Val60Leu, Val92Met, and Arg163Gln variants are 250,000-100,000 years; the ages for African silent variants—Leu106Leu, Cys273Cys, and Phe300Phe—are 100,000-40,000 years.  For the European red hair-associated Arg151cys and Arg160Trp variants, we estimate an age of ~80,000 years; for Asp294His, and Ser316Ser, we estimate an age of <= 30,000 years. “ (Harding et al, 2000, p. 1357 )

The red hair genes generally produce a somewhat lighter skin tone, even if you aren’t homogeneous for ginger hair genes (ie, red haired). I should know, I have one pale ginger gene from Granny, and I’m porcelain skinned and burn very easily, even with the dark hair. Red haired individuals are a lot lighter skinned and don’t tan, and prone to sunburn. Alos, genes that cause lighter eye colours also lighten skin colour.

Leaving aside the Neanderthal date of this gene, this would make the first Europeans pretty much the same skin tone wise as modern ones, as the red hair MC1R mutations affect skin as well as hair colour, almost like a mild form of albinism. This would have meant there probably wasn’t much difference between Cro Magnon and Modern European skin tone.

My hypothesis is, that the recent light skin colour mutation is a recent improvement on the mutations to the MC1R that cause ginger hair, as they allow skin light enough to allow vitamin D synthesis, but it also allows the carrier to tan to a limited degree, giving some UV protection as well. This could mean that the MC1R ginger hair genes are slowly being replaced by the light skin gene, and ‘gingerness’ was probably carried by the majority of early Europeans.  The red hair mutation is fine if the base skin colour is an Asian tan, but add it to European pale skin and you’ve got a recipe for sunburn. I expect the frequency of red heads has been decreasing ever since the skin lightening mutation came along.

So different gene, similar effect on skin tone.

As an after thought, I’ve found a picture of an Indian boy with Caucasian features and light coloured eyes. He’s probably a good approximation of what the first Europeans looked like, about 35,000 years ago. Not including the shirt.

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15 responses to “So what did the first Europeans look like?

  1. I’m finding your blog fascinating reading. I have no background in anthropology (besides an Anthro 101 class as an undergrad) but ever since I had my mtDNA tested I find myself very interested in what is known about my deep ancestry. (I’m haplogroup H, subclade H11) Thank you for all that you share. This article was really interesting!

  2. U have an UGLY baby

  3. It’s NOT mine!!!

  4. I want that baby!! And it’s not ugly, it’s adorable.

  5. This is very interesting! I love all that you do!

  6. how dare u say dat about a beautiful baby ur the 1 whose but ugly love so get a life n grow up u pathetic twat

  7. baby ginger is sooooooooooo cute

  8. hahahaha HIDEOUS
    demonbaby dsemonbaby demonbaby
    LOL

  9. Mathilda you’ve got the most fascinating blog on the internet. Awesome. Now I’m going to go out on a limb and ask if you know of any research on dark-skinned Ashkenazic Jews: exceedingly few in number, is it most likely we get our swarthy complexions from Mideastern ancestors or perhaps from some other migration? What kind of DNA test might help clear this up?

    • Well thanks Rueben.

      The Ashkenazi aren’t a big reading focus for me, but they probably do have their darker skin as a result of the near eastern ancestry.

  10. The red hair gene isn’t going away, and has nothing to do with the “light haired” gene you claim is replacing it. umm… science?

    As a ressesive gene, it will become less commonly expressed as red haired europeans dispese into the world and interbreed. But that doesn’t mean the gene is being replaced, it’s still there and can pop up when ever two ressesive carriers have a child.

    This light haired gene of yours, an MC1R mutation “improvement”? Care to offer some facts? or back up research? It’s just social dawinism – one step away from eugenics.

  11. Great article. I find anthropological studies of genetics very fascinating.
    But it really irritates me when people talk about recessive “genes.” It is the allele that is recessive. With all that being said…YES you can lose a trait such as red hair over time if people constantly mix with people who don’t possess this trait. And when people continue to mix with other people who don’t have this trait it will eventually leave. Recessive alleles are tricky, though, because they can “hide.”

    I love Anthropology and Biology. It’s just sad that science has gotten so mushed up into politics. It is so amazing how organisms (as well as humans) can go through genetic changes that make us only slightly different in eye color, hair texture, height, facial structure, etc and yet still so very similar that we can still create offspring.

  12. That baby looks like Conan ‘Brien

    I think the baby is cute

  13. Mathilda,
    Why “Guanchos” (Canary Islands,) used to look like Vikings?
    Thanks!

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