Indian Hair Report

Europeans were dark-skinned until 8,000 years ago

  • The original migrants to Europe from Africa arrived 40,000 years ago
  • Up until 8,000 years ago, early hunter-gatherers largely had darker skin
  • When Near East farmers arrived, they carried with them light skin genes
  • Genomes of 83 people found 5 genes linked with diet and skin changes 

By

Ellie Zolfagharifard

and
Richard Gray for MailOnline

It has been at the root of division and persecution for centuries, but it seems that the white skin of most modern Europeans did not evolve in Europe at all.

Now genetic research has revealed that ancient European populations were dark skinned for far longer than had originally been thought.

Rather than lightening as early humans migrated north from Africa around 40,000 years ago due to lower levels of sunlight, these first Homo sapiens retained their dark skin colour.

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This graphic above shows the influx of genes to Europe that brought lighter skin colour and taller body shapes, according to the new research on ancient human remains conducted by geneticists at Harvard University

This graphic above shows the influx of genes to Europe that brought lighter skin colour and taller body shapes, according to the new research on ancient human remains conducted by geneticists at Harvard University

Genetic analysis has shown that hunter gatherers living in Spain up to 8,500 years ago still had dark skin.

It was not until 7,800 years ago, when the first farmers migrated from the Near East through Turkey that two key genes that provide lighter skin appeared.

DNA analysis obtained from ancient human remains has shown that as these farmers bred with the dark skinned hunter gatherers, one of these genes became prevalent in the European population and European’s skin colour began to lighten.

Around 5,800 years ago the second gene, which makes skin colour lighter still, also began to spread though the European population.

The first Europeans looked dramatically different to most of the fair skinned people that live there today. New research suggests Caucasians were a recent addition to the area, arriving on the continent 8,000 years ago

The first Europeans looked dramatically different to most of the fair skinned people that live there today. New research suggests Caucasians were a recent addition to the area, arriving on the continent 8,000 years ago

Europeans had dark skin for far longer than previously though. Photographed are two participants in the BBC's Trading Races where members of the British public spent several days dressed with a different skin colour

Europeans had dark skin for far longer than previously though. Photographed are two participants in the BBC’s Trading Races where members of the British public spent several days dressed with a different skin colour

The research, which was presented at the 84th annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, shows that populations in Europe were still evolving until relatively recently.

It also shows that a population of hunter gatherers living on the site of Motala, southern Sweden, had already developed both skin-lightening genes around 7,700 years ago together with a third that gave them blue eyes.

Dr Iain Mathieson, a geneticist at Harvard University in Massachusetts who led the work, said: ‘Ancient DNA makes it possible to examine populations as they were before, during and after adaptation events, and thus to reveal the tempo and mode of selection.

EUROPEANS COULDN’T DIGEST MILK 5,000 YEARS AFTER ADOPTING FARMING

A study of ancient human bones has revealed how Early Europeans had difficulties digesting milk around 5,000 years after the introduction of farming.

It took at least that long for their genes to evolve until they were no longer intolerant to lactose, the natural sugar in mammalian milk, scientists suggests.

Researchers looked at ancient DNA extracted from 13 individuals buried at archaeological sites in the Great Hungarian Plain – a region known to have been at the crossroads of cultural change in European prehistory.

the samples were dated from 5,700 BC to 800 BC, ranging across the Stone, Copper, Bronze and Iron Ages.

‘Our findings show progression towards lighter skin pigmentation as hunter and gatherers and non-local farmers intermarried, but surprisingly no presence of increased lactose persistence or tolerance to lactose,’ said Professor Ron Pinhasi, from University College Dublin’s Earth Institute.

‘This means that these ancient Europeans would have had domesticated animals like cows, goats and sheep, but they would not yet have genetically developed a tolerance for drinking large quantities of milk from mammals.’

‘We find a surprise in seven Scandinavian hunter-gatherers from the Motala site in southern Sweden who lived around 7,700 years before present.

‘While the western hunter-gatherers of central and southern Europe largely have the ancestral allele at the two major European skin pigmentation loci, the closely related Scandinavian hunter-gatherers have both the derived alleles contributing to light skin pigmentation at high frequency.’

The study, which is also published on the open access site BioRxiv, compared the genomes obtained from the remains of 83 people found at archaeological sites across Europe along with the genomes of modern Europeans.

The researchers found five genes associated with changes in diet, body size and skin pigmentation that underwent natural selection in the past 8,000 years.

Studies suggest that Europe was first reshaped during the Neolithic Revolution 8,500 years ago. Farmers at this time travelled north, bringing new technology and language into Europe. Pictured is an early Neolithic 35-40 year old male from, Czech Republic, who was part of the first mass migration to Europe

Studies suggest that Europe was first reshaped during the Neolithic Revolution 8,500 years ago. Farmers at this time travelled north, bringing new technology and language into Europe. Pictured is an early Neolithic 35-40 year old male from, Czech Republic, who was part of the first mass migration to Europe

Two of the genes were associated with producing light skin – SLC24A5 and SLC45A2.

They found that the remains of early hunter gatherers who lived in Spain, Luxembourg and Hungary around 8,500 years ago, they lacked these key gene variants.

However, in the remains of hunter gatherers that had lived in Motala 7,700 years ago, they carried both variants of SLC24A5 and SLC45A2 that produced lighter skin.

They also carried another gene known to produce blue eyes in Europeans.

Surprisingly they found a fourth set of genes in the DNA from these people suggests these people may actually have been related to people living in East Asia at the time.

Dr Mathieson and his colleagues also found that when the first farmers from the Near East arrived in Europe, they carried with them genes for light skin.

At this time the SLC24A5 gene quickly became prevalent in southern and central European populations and then around 5,800 years ago.

Previous research has identified a mass migration of Kurgan populations (Yamna culture) which went from the Russian steppes to the centre of Europe 4,500 years ago. Previously, researchers had believed it spread 8,500 years ago, when the first farmers from the Near East, now modern day Turkey, brought it to Europe

Previous research has identified a mass migration of Kurgan populations (Yamna culture) which went from the Russian steppes to the centre of Europe 4,500 years ago. Previously, researchers had believed it spread 8,500 years ago, when the first farmers from the Near East, now modern day Turkey, brought it to Europe

These gene is known to account for between 25-40 per cent of the skin tone lightening in Europeans.

Around 5,800 years ago the gene variant for SLC45A1 then becomes prevalent, lightening skin colour further.

The results contradict the traditional view that lower sunlight levels in Europe would have favoured lighter skin.

The study also showed that around around 4,800 years ago a group of herders known as the Yamnaya migrated from the stepps between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, carried with them genes for tallness to northern and central Europe.

Dr Nina Jablonski, a paleoanthropologist at Pennsylvania State University who was not involved in the research, told the journal Science:  ‘What we thought was a fairly simple picture of the emergence of de-pigmented skin in Europe is an exciting patchwork of selection as populations disperse into northern latitudes.

‘This data is fun because it shows how much recent evolution has taken place.’

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