Anna Salleh in Brisbane ABC Science Online Friday, 16 July 2004
This girl’s ancestors may have had darker skin that didn’t burn so easily, ancient DNA suggests (Image: iStockphoto)
Researchers may be able to make more accurate reconstructions of what ancient humans looked like with the first ever use of ancient DNA to determine hair and skin colour from skeletal remains.
The research was presented today at an international ancient DNA conference in Brisbane, Australia, by German anthropologist, Dr Diane Schmidt of the University of Göttingen.
She said her research may also help to identify modern day murderers and their victims.
“Three thousand years ago, nobody was doing painting and there was no photography. We do not know what people looked like,” Schmidt told ABC Science Online.
She said most images in museums and books were derived from comparisons with living people from the same regions.
“For example, when we make a reconstruction of people from Africa we think that they had dark skin or dark hair,” she said. “But there’s no real scientific information. It’s just a guess. It’s mostly imagination.”
She said this had meant, for example, that the reconstruction of Neanderthals had changed over time.
“In the 1920s, the Neanderthals were reconstructed as wild people with dark hair and dumb, not really clever,” she said. “Today, with the same fossil record, with the same bones and no other information – just a change in ideology – you see reconstructions of people with blue eyes and quite light skin colour, looking intelligent and using tools.
“Most of the reconstructions you see in museums are a thing of the imagination of the reconstructor. Our goal is to make this reconstruction less subjective and give them an objective basis with scientific data.”
Genetic markers for hair colour
In research for her recently completed PhD, Schmidt built on research from the fields of dermatology and skin cancer that have found genetic markers for traits such as skin and hair colour in modern humans.
In particular, Schmidt relied on the fact that different mutations (known as single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs) in the melanocortin receptor 1 gene are responsible for skin and hair colour.
DNA analysis showed this skull belonged to someone with red hair (Image: Sussane Hummel)
“There is a set of SNPs that tells you that a person was a redhead and a different set of markers tell you they were fair skinned.”
She extracted DNA from ancient human bones as old as 3000 years old from three different locations in Germany and looked for these SNPs.
Her findings suggest that red hair and fair skin was very uncommon among ancient Germans.
Out of a total of 26 people analysed, Schmidt found only one person with red hair and fair skin, a man from the Middle Ages. All the other people had more UV-tolerant skin that tans easily.
She said she was excited when she “coloured in” the faces that once covered the skulls, and had even developed “a kind of a personal relationship” with one of them.
“It’s not so anonymous,” she said. “I think this is the reason why people in museums can do reconstruction because our ancestors are not so anonymous any more; they have a face you can look into.”
Unfortunately the genetic markers Schmidt used could not distinguish which of the ancient humans had blond versus black hair, and she could not determine eye colour.
But, she said she was confident that this will be possible in a few years.
Schmidt said that such research could also be used to help build up identikit pictures to help identify skeletons or criminals.
The research has been submitted for publication.
Someone posted this on my paleoanthropology group a while back. I’d just like to comment the the red hair mutation also lightens skin a fair bit, so the net difference between the skin of a Cro-Magnon with red hair and a modern European may not be all that much. I’d like to know what proportion of these old remains had red hair, as with a darker basic skin tone they would have burned less easily than modern gingers, and it could have been pretty ubiquitous amoung ancient Europeans, being used instead of the SLC245 mutation to lighten skin.