Just what skin colour were Europeans before the SLC24A5 mutation?

I keep seeing the SLC24A5 mutation referred to as ‘the mutation that turned Europeans from black to white’ on various sites, which is incorrect. It only accounts for about one third of the difference between European and Africans, in essence changing Europeans from Asian tan to pasty pink. To understand the range of skin colour range you get across the world, I’m digging out the old Von Luschan scale as a visual aid. These were originally made of opaque glass which was held up to the underarm skin to compare the colour. It wasn’t an exact measurement, but it did give a reasonable guide to the skin tone of the population.

Europeans are typically lighter than 15, and lighter than 12 in Northern Europe. Africans, with absolutely no non-African admixture can be as light as 20, or as dark as the scale gets at 36.

The San are about as light as Africans get without some Eurasian ancestry (seen above), and that’s slightly darker than North East Africans, Arabs and Pakistanis (see skin colour map). The ‘pale skin’ mutation only makes a difference of about six on the Von Luschan scale; one third of the difference between African and European, the specific difference between Asians and Europeans. 

The mutation has made virtually no difference to the average skin tone of any population except Northern Europe, although it will have increased the range a of skin colours a little in places like North Africa and South West Asia. As you can see from the map, native North Americans who are completely lacking in the SLC24A5 mutation for pale skin had a skin tone in the same latitudes as Europe of 15 to 17, the same as Southern Spain and Turkey.

vl-1-to-21

Just to see what these skin tones look like in real life, a representative of Northern Europe, Southern Europe and lower Egypt. The mutation to the SLC24A5 gene would make roughly the difference in skin tone between the very pale lady and the tanned Spanish lady in the middle, with the lady on the end probably being as dark as Southern Europeans ever got. It’s frequency is effectively zero in East Asia and was zero in native Americans prior any mixing with Europeans. Some examples of definitely non-mutated SLC24A5 carrying people below.

ett

Notably not black skinned, and lacking ‘light’ SLC24A5.

And as was kindly brought to my attention by one blog reader, a painting showing the Guanches – native north Africans who were isolated on the Canary islands from about 3,000 years ago and were probably lacking in the ‘light-skin’ gene. The Guanches are were described as tall, tanned and often blond – quite notably not as black. As you can see from this contemporary painting they are shown exactly the same as the Spaniards in skin tone (the Guanche is the  lowest figure.) They show what native north Africans looked like without any admixture from any other source dating back to the BC era. This means minus Roman, European and sub Saharan ancestry

 

25 responses to “Just what skin colour were Europeans before the SLC24A5 mutation?

  1. In East Asia that Tibetan woman you show is considered “dark”, if you want to reflect the full range, as you did with the Caucasian samples.

    This Japanese woman is considered “white” or “light” in East Asia:

    • Dead image link.. but I take your point. I was avoiding North east Asians as I think they have a seperate mutation for light skin and I wanted to show a more baseline colour for Asia.

  2. European populations are astonishingly depigmented relative to other ethnic groups even relative to Asians who have existed at similar latitudes approximately for the same amount of time.

    So I think its obvious that Europeans must have inherited this level of pigmentation from ancestors who were in Europe a lot longer than 4o or 5o thousand years. Europeans must have inherited these levels of pigmentation from the Neandertals.

  3. Useful information given in an easy to follow way, thanks.

  4. Mathilda,

    The only Caucasian population I can think of that mightn’t have been part of the selective sweep of SLC24A5 would be the Guanches of the Canary Islands, off the coast of Morocco.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guanches

    Here’s a painting of how they looked:

  5. Marcel:

    “European populations are astonishingly depigmented relative to other ethnic groups even relative to Asians who have existed at similar latitudes approximately for the same amount of time.”

    That is not correct.

    Most of East Asia is not at similar latitudes to most of Europe.

    Northern Japan, which borders the Russian far east is about 45 degrees latitude, and besides Ainu, ethnic Japanese have only lived there for a few centuries.

    Tokyo is about 35 degrees. Beijing is about 40…Seoul is inbetween Beijing and Tokyo.

    Oslo is at 60 degrees, whereas Istanbul is above 40 degrees, Madrid is about 40 degrees, Rome about 45 degrees.

    I think you get the point.

    East Asians, on average, are about as dark as Southern Europeans, with some infrequent spots of “lightness” that is similar to Northern Europeans. As most of us know East Asians tend to have a yellow tinge to their skin whereas Europeans a pinkish, but most of Asia is in a sub-tropical zone and most Asians have lived in a temperate to sub-tropical zone for thousands of years.

  6. “Europeans must have inherited these levels of pigmentation from the Neandertals”.

    I strongly suspect that is true. Is the SLC24A5 mutation the product of a single mutation from the ancestral situation or is it part of a sequence? We won’t know its exact origin until we can find the entire sequence of mutations.

  7. But actually southern/eastern Europeans and most north/east Asians are in the same narrow range, as shown in the map (12-14).

    Btw, I always wonder with that map why the areas are not described by equal ranges (1-4, 5-8, 9-12, etc) and the only answer I can concieve is that the author wants to emphasize some differences and minimize others.

    Also I find terribly diffcult to classify my own skin tone within that yellowish scale. My skin, which is pretty typical white, is beige but somewhat darker than the shown beiges, and especially much more reddish (and not yellowish/greenish).

    The mutation to the SLC24A5 gene would make roughly the difference in skin tone between the very pale lady and the tanned Spanish lady in the middle, with the lady on the end probably being as dark as Southern Europeans ever got.

    The last pic is impossible to tell: it’s all makeup. I have seen Europeans much darker than the woman of the middle anyhow, in the 20ish scale. Though it may be argued that they could have North African or other transmediterranean ancestry (uncertain).

    So I think its obvious that Europeans must have inherited this level of pigmentation from ancestors who were in Europe a lot longer than 4o or 5o thousand years. Europeans must have inherited these levels of pigmentation from the Neandertals.

    In fact the mutations in action seem to be much younger. Neanderthals did have some of the same phenotype adaptations (red hair confirmed in some especimens) but with different genes. This difference of genes strongly suggests convergent evolution and not direct introgression.

    Europe, especially western Europe (Atlantic climate nowadays), is particularly cloudy. Also Northern Europe has been only colonized in the last 12,000 years, since the end of the Ice Age.

    IMO, Aurignacian colonists who arrived from West/Central Asia were already somewhat depigmented but within the Asian range. Later, in Central Europe possibly, the depygmentation trend went farther to adapt to the darker European conditions, retaining and promoting blondisms to some extent. When Northern Europe was finally colonized in the Epipaleolithic (already with humid, dark but warm, Atlantic climate) this adaptative trend was increased.

    Light pygmentation is important in northern latitudes in general, especially when fish are not strong in the diet, because lack of vitamin D causes not just bone dieseases but also mental ones (schizophrenia and other psychological deficiencies). Hence people living in the very peculiar warm but dark European climatic area need light skins or a vitamin D rich diet.

    It is only normal that this kind of pygmentation was selected along the milennia in NW Europe. East Asians have also adapted to such needs but with somewhat different genetics and phenotype. The genes for light skin are obviously present in our chimpanzee cousins (youngsters only) and also among our most distant relatives the orangutans. Blond hair (often associated with lighter pygmentation) was probably present already in early Eurasians as it’s also found in Australia and Melanesia. In general young children tend to be lighter pygmented than adults (this is very clear in hair color), so, as in the case of lactase tolerance, this is surely a paedomorphic trait to some extent.

    • The lady with all the make up is that skin tone in other pics of her- she’s a very pretty Egyptian singer called Ruby. The darkish Europeans I know all have Romany ancestry in them- which is actually a fair few in the SE of England.

      East Asians have also adapted to such needs but with somewhat different genetics and phenotype.

      I know, that’s why I put an Eskimo in the pics, no adaptations due to a neolithic diet in them.

  8. Guanches= berbers of north africa

  9. Guanches= berbers of north african origin (Morocco)
    no difference between guanches and spaniards !Lol

  10. I would also add that the San-Bushman you showed was obviously tanned. Who knows how light he would be if not constantly exposed to the sun, maybe just a tad darker than some Greeks.

    • Odd you should say that. I have an aunt of San ancestry, after a year in the UK she had faded to a yellow brown colour. The kids are a lot lighter in colour. People tend to forget Africans tan too.

  11. The pictures of asians you posted there are not really representative of the lighter skinned mongoloids. Thailand is in southeast asia and is a tropical country. The population is significantly darker than those in northeast asia (japan, korea, northern china) Eskimos and tibetans are really quite dark

    Here’s a typical northern japanese crowd. They can be as light or even lighter than the average european

    • Yes, but NE Asians see to have their own Neolithic era skin lightening mutation- I was going for what people looked like before the farming era. Thanks for the image though.

  12. Hello, I have a simple question:

    Do the Berbers / Imazighen / Kabyles (most probably descendants of the predecessors to the Guanches) carry this SLC24A5 mutation?

    As a visual representation, here are photos of Kenza Farah and Zinedine Zidane, both 100% Algerian Kabyles:

  13. A comment on the paintings showing the Guanches: they are not contemporary of the conquest (1490’s) but were painted by Carlos Acosta in 1764, that is more than 200 years after the Guanches became (more or less) extinct either by war, diseases or intermarriage. In case anybody is interested, the murals decorate the main staircase of San Cristóbal de la Laguna town hall.

  14. By the way, you might be interested in a painting I saw some time ago and I believe to be the only actual portrait of a real Guanche. His Spanish name was Pedro González but he was also known as “Arrigo Piloso” due to his peculiar hairyness. You can see that portrait here: http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/c/carracci/agostino/hairy.html. Roberto Zapperi wrote his biography.

  15. How old is that picture of the Gaunches?? Because I doubt it is 3,000 years old. It looks too recent, and you can’t take any really recent paintings of ancient people as truth because people have had their biases for many recent centuries.

    • It’s a bit after the Spanish conquest of the Canary islands. Theres a portrait of an actual Guanche called ‘hairy harry’ around which is contemporary to their existance. The Spaniards decribed themas having a lot of blonds, if you were wondering.

  16. It seems to me that color of the skin is changing. Somehow it is subject to evolution, and it changes very fast.
    I ‘ve been thinking about it for a long time. Both my parents have black hair and black and brown eyes. Their skin colour is darker than mine, yet I have light blue eyes, very light skin color and my hair was blonde when I was a baby. Except for the colors I look very much like my parents.
    I have noticed the same in the second generation of middle east people in northern europe. Their parents look like arabs but the children sometimes are more like european. They have much lighter skin color than their parents. Perhaps human body have tendency to make those mutations naturaly as some kind of evolutional adaptation.

  17. Dear Mathilda,

    As a designer I have worked on making skin color maps for a few years now. I’m using the CIA world book of fact and thousands of images and methods to get to these skintones. see my work at http://www.worldskincolors.com I’m working on a on book on skin colors and would love to get in touch with you to ask you some questions…My email is reineke@gmail.com Thanking you in advance, Reineke Otten

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s