The spreading of early modern humans (red) from Africa, based on genetic studies. In Europe, the first modern humans (Cro-Magnons) would have encountered the Neanderthals.
Up to 37,500 YBP
Up to 35,000 YBP
Up to 32,500 YBP
Up to 30,000 YBP
Next time you call someone a Neanderthal, better look in a mirror. Many of the genes that help determine most people’s skin and hair are more Neanderthal than not, according to two new studies that look at the DNA fossils hidden in the modern human genome.
Ancient genomic sequences have started to reveal the origin and the demographic impact of farmers from the Neolithic period spreading into Europe. European hunter-gatherers were still dark skinned as recently as 7000 years ago, while the Early Neolithic farmers from the Near East possessed alleles for fair skin found in modern Europeans.
Based on recent genetic information carried out at three Japanese universities, the date of the genetic mutation that resulted in blonde hair in Europe has been isolated to about 11,000 years ago during the last ice age. Before then, Europeans mostly had black hair and eyes, which is predominant in the rest of the world.
La Braña 1, the name used to baptize a 7,000 years old individual from the Mesolithic Period, whose remains were recovered at La Braña-Arintero site in Valdelugueros (León, Spain), had blue eyes and dark skin.
These details are the result of a study conducted by Carles Lalueza-Fox, researcher from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), in collaboration with the Centre for GeoGenetics (Denmark). La Braña 1 represents the first recovered genome of an European hunter-gatherer.
Neanderthals inhabited the plains of Europe and parts of Asia as far back as 230,000 years ago. They disappeared from the fossil record more than 20,000 years ago, a few thousand years after modern humans appeared on the scene.
Neanderthals lived in Europe and Asia between about 200,000 and 30,000 years ago. Our species – sometimes dubbed “modern humans” – made it to Eurasia about 65,000 years ago, and so the two species had plenty of time to cosy up.
In 2010, geneticists discovered that they had been very close neighbours indeed. They sequenced a Neanderthal genome and discovered it carried genes that also appear in the genomes of people of European and Asian descent: our species must have interbred with Neanderthals.
Now, by studying Neanderthal genes in people alive today, researchers are beginning to appreciate how that interbreeding influenced our species.
A new research has found that some Neanderthals were perhaps red haired and white skinned, just like modern Europeans are. “I am quite sure this variant arose like the red hair variants in modern Europeans”, said lead author Carles Lalueza-Fox, of the University of Barcelona.
“In the cases of both Neanderthals and modern Europeans, the gene mutation that caused fairer complexions spread only after the respective populations migrated from Africa.”, he added.
His team discovered in Neanderthal DNA samples a previously unknown mutation of the MC1R gene. The same gene encodes in modern humans a protein controlling the melanin synthesis, the pigment that gives hair, skin and eye coloration and defends the body against
UV radiation. Mutations in this gene are known to lower the melanin amount in modern humans, resulting light skin and red hair. Still, the mutation found in Neanderthals does not coincide with any found in modern humans.
The Neanderthal mutant gene was checked in living cells to assess its effect. It inhibited the melanin synthesis, inducing in its Neanderthal owner light-colored hair and skin. The investigated DNA belonged to Neanderthals encountered in Italy and Spain.
“European [humans] have quite a lot of variation in this gene-not only red hair variants but also others. The Neanderthals, being there at least 400,000 [years], likely accumulated ten times more variation.”, said Lalueza-Fox, pointing to the fact that modern humans entered Europe 40,000 years ago, while Neanderthals inhabited the old continent 400,000 to 28,000 years ago.
Still, the author omitted the fact that researches revealed the origin of light-skinned people of today’s Europe in western/central Asia. Those 40,000 years old European Homo sapiens were rather black.
“It’s not surprising that there would be a Neanderthal-specific MC1R variant that results in a partial loss of function (and thus lighter skin and hair). Similar mutations have arisen independently in different modern human populations”, said James Noonan, a geneticist at the Yale University School of Medicine, not involved in this research.
“A number of genes that affect human skin color are still changing and spreading through Europe and Asia. The particular genes that affect skin color are different in Europe and Asia, but in both places, fairer complexions appear to be the result of broken versions of these genes.
This paper suggests that Neanderthals were light, or were getting light, in the same way, i.e., by selection for slightly broken genes”, commented Henry Harpending, an anthropologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, not involved in this study.
Many put the spread of fair genes on the natural selection. In the Northern clime, there is “less sunlight and so less need for darker skin pigmentation to protect against UV-induced damage,” Noonan said.
Others believe that an accelerated rate of the spread for these genes could be linked to sexual selection. “Both processes took place independently-that’s the reason the Neanderthal variant is not present in modern humans. The new find offers no evidence of interbreeding between humans and Neanderthals”, said Lalueza-Fox.
In one new study of 1000 human genomes, Sriram Sankararaman and David Reich of Harvard Medical School and colleagues found that Neanderthal DNA is most common in regions of the genome with the greatest genetic variability, making them a prime target for natural selection.
“While Neanderthal DNA may make up only 1.6 to 1.8 per cent of the Eurasian genome, it punches above its weight in terms of biological impact”, says Reich.
Scientists isolated the parts of the modern human genetic blueprint that still contain Neanderthal remnants. Overall, it’s barely more than 1 percent, said two studies released Wednesday in the journals Nature and Science.
However, in some places, such as the DNA related to the skin, the genetic instructions are as much as 70 per cent Neanderthal and in other places there’s virtually nothing from the species that’s often portrayed as brutish cavemen.
The difference between where Neanderthal DNA is plentiful and where it’s absent may help scientists understand what in our genome “makes humans human,” said University of Washington genome scientist Joshua Akey, lead author of the paper in Science.
The studies mostly examined the genomes of people whose ancestors left Africa at some point. People whose ancestors have all stayed in Africa have almost no Neanderthal DNA because there was little interbreeding.
Harvard researcher Sriram Sankararaman, the lead author of the Nature study, said the place where Neanderthal DNA seemed to have the most influence in the modern human genome has to do with skin and hair. Akey said those instructions are as much as 70 per cent Neanderthal.
“We’re more Neanderthals than not in those genes,” Akey said. However, Sankararaman cautions that scientists don’t yet know just what the Neanderthal DNA dictates in our skin and hair.
Sarah Tishkoff, a professor of genetics and biology at the University of Pennsylvania who was not part of either study, theorized that the Neanderthal DNA probably helped the darker humans out of Africa cope with the cooler less bright north.
Living in the cooler Europe means less ultraviolet light and less vitamin D from the sun. Darker skin blocks more of those needed rays, so lighter skin is more advantageous in the north and it seems that humans adopted that Neanderthal adaptation, she said.
Joshua Akey and Ben Vernot of the University of Washington in Seattle have analysed the Neanderthal DNA in a further 665 humans. Both their study and the Harvard one found a hotspot of Neanderthal ancestry in genes relating to keratin, a fibrous protein found in our hair, skin and nails.
One of the genes, BNC2, is involved in skin pigmentation. That implies that Eurasians owe their paler skins partly to Neanderthals. Light skin is an advantage at higher latitudes because it is more efficient at generating vitamin D from sunlight, so Neanderthal DNA may have helped modern humans to adapt to life outside Africa.
If so, the adaptation took thousands of years to become universal. A third study published this week describes a DNA analysis of one person who lived in Stone Age Europe about 7000 years ago – 40,000 years after any Neanderthal interbreeding. His genes suggest his skin was dark. It may be that the Neanderthal keratin affected early Eurasians’ hair instead, perhaps straightening it.
Bones from two Neanderthals yielded valuable genetic information that adds red hair, light skin and perhaps some freckling to our extinct relatives. The results, detailed online today by the journal Science, suggest that at least 1 percent of Neanderthals were redheads.
“We can’t say anything for the actual fossils we looked at, but we can be sure that part of the Neanderthal population was red-haired,” said study team member Michael Hofreiter of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
Earlier this month, other scientists reported genetic evidence that Neanderthals may have spoken similar to how we do today.
Holger Rompler of the University of Leipzig, Carles Lalueza-Fox of the University of Barcelona in Spain, and their colleagues extracted the mc1r gene from the bones of a 43,000-year-old Neanderthal from El Sidron, Spain, and a 50,000-year-old specimen from Monti Lessini, Italy.
They found that both Neanderthal specimens contained a unique variant of the gene, one that was not found in nearly 4,000 modern humans they compared it with (including the scientists themselves).
The gene is responsible for producing a protein that helps regulate the balance between the red-and-yellow pigment pheomelanin and the black-and-brown eumelanin. Modern people with relatively inactive mc1r receptors tend to have red hair and pale skin. However, other pigmentation genes also contribute to hair and skin coloring.
A past study led by Rompler found a variant of the same gene in woolly mammoth bones, providing evidence that some of the ice-age beasts sported light-colored coats.
In the current study, the researchers tweaked a human mc1r gene so that it matched the variant found in Neanderthals. When they put the gene into modern human cells, it functioned in melatonin production as the modern variants do, suggesting some Neanderthals had fair skin and red hair.
Anatomically modern humans (AMH) are believed to have first emerged in East Africa some 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. According to this theory, an exodus from Africa over the Arabian Peninsula around 60,000 years ago brought modern humans to Eurasia, with one group rapidly settling coastal areas around the Indian Ocean and one group migrating north to steppes of Central Asia.
Cro-Magnon is a common name that has been used to describe the first early modern humans (early Homo sapiens sapiens) of the European Upper Paleolithic. Current scientific literature prefers the term European Early Modern Humans (EEMH), to the term ‘Cro-Magnon,’ which has no formal taxonomic status, as it refers neither to a species or subspecies nor to an archaeological phase or culture.
The earliest known remains of Cro-Magnon-like humans are radiocarbon dated to 43,000 years before present. Modern Indigenous Europeans descend from the Cro-Magnon peoples.
Cro-Magnons were robustly built and powerful. The body was generally heavy and solid with a strong musculature. However, recent research suggests that the physical dimensions of so-called “Cro-Magnon” are not sufficiently different from modern humans to warrant a separate designation.
The forehead was fairly straight rather than sloping like in Neanderthals, and with only slight browridges. The face was short and wide. The chin was prominent. The brain capacity was about 1,600 cubic centimetres (98 cu in), larger than the average for modern humans.
A mitochondrial DNA sequence of two Cro-Magnons from the Paglicci Cave, Italy, dated to 23,000 and 24,000 years old (Paglicci 52 and 12), identified the mtDNA as Haplogroup N, typical of the descendants in Central Asia.
The inland group is the founder of North and East Asians, Europeans, large sections of the Middle East, and North African populations. Migration from the Black Sea area into Europe started some 45,000 years ago, probably along the Danubian corridor. By 20,000 years ago, modern humans had reached the western margin of the continent.
Cro-Magnons were anatomically modern, straight limbed and tall compared to the contemporaneous Neanderthals. They are thought to have been on average 176.2 centimeters (about 5′ 7″ to 5′ 9″) tall, though large males may have stood as tall as 195 cm (6′ 5″) and taller. They differ from modern-day humans in having a more robust physique and a slightly larger cranial capacity.
The Cro-Magnons had long, fairly low skulls, with wide faces, prominent noses, and moderate to no prognathism. A distinctive trait was the rectangular eye orbits. Cro-Magnon vocal apparatus was like that of present-day humans and they could probably speak.
Mitochondrial DNA analyses place the early European population as sister group to the Asian groups, dating the divergence to some 50,000 years ago. The very light skin tone found in modern Northern Europeans is a relatively recent phenomenon, and may have only appeared in the European line as recently as 6 to 12 thousand years ago indicating Cro-Magnons had light brown to tanned-skin.
Sequencing of finds of the late post ice-age hunter-gatherer populations in Europe indicates the Cro-Magnons likely had blue eyes and dark hair, and an “olive” complexion. A small ivory bust of a man found at Dolní Věstonice and dated to 26,000 years indicates the Cro-Magnons had straight hair, though the somewhat later Venus of Brassempouy may show wavy or curly hair, possibly braided.
The flint tools found in association with the remains at Cro-Magnon have associations with the Aurignacian culture that Lartet had identified a few years before he found the first skeletons. The Aurignacian differ from the earlier cultures by their finely worked bone or antler points and flint points made for hafting, the production of Venus figurines and cave painting. They pierced bones, shells and teeth to make body ornaments.
Like Neanderthals, the Cro-Magnons were primarily big-game hunters, killing mammoth, cave bears, horses, and reindeer. They hunted with spears, javelins, and atlatl. Archery had not yet been invented. They would have been nomadic or semi-nomadic, following the annual migration of their prey, and also ate plant materials. In Mezhirich village in Ukraine, several huts built from mammoth bones possibly representing semi-permanent hunting camps have been unearthed.
Finds of spun, dyed, and knotted flax fibers among Cro-Magnon artifacts in Dzudzuana shows they made cords for hafting stone tools, weaving baskets, or sewing garments. Apart from the mammoth bone huts mentioned, they constructed shelter of rocks, clay, branches, and animal hide/fur. These early humans used manganese and iron oxides to paint pictures and may have created one early lunar calendar around 15,000 years ago.
Physical anthropologists generally consider the Cro-Magnons, who emerged during the Upper Paleolithic, as the earliest or prototype representatives of the Caucasoid race. In a study of Cro-Magnon crania, Jantz and Owsley (2003) have noted that: “Upper Paleolithic crania are, for the most part, larger and more generalized versions of recent Europeans.”
William Howells (1997) has pointed out that Cro-Magnons were Caucasoid based on their cranial traits: … the Cro-Magnons were already racially European, i.e., Caucasoid. This has always been accepted because of the general appearance of the skulls: straight faces, narrow noses, and so forth.
It is also possible to test this arithmetically. … Except for Predmosti 4, which is distant from every present and past population, all of these skulls show themselves to be closer to “Europeans” than to other peoples — Mladec and Abri Pataud comfortably so, the other two much more remotely.
Proponents of the multiregional origin of modern humans argue that Caucasoid traits emerged prior to the Cro-Magnons, and are present in the Skhul and Qafzeh hominids or in the Neanderthals. Carleton Coon (1962), for example, considered the Skhul IV specimen as a proto-Caucasoid.
He further argued that the Caucasoid race is of dual origin, consisting of Upper Paleolithic types (mixture of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals) and Mediterranean types (purely Homo sapiens).
Caucasian race (also Caucasoid or Europid) is the general physical type of some or all of the populations of Europe, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Western Asia, Central Asia and South Asia. The term was used in biological anthropology for many people from these regions, without regard necessarily to skin tone.
The name “Caucasian” derived from the Southern Caucasus region (or what is now the countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia), because he considered the people of this region to be the archetype for the grouping.
First introduced in early racial science and anthropometry, the taxon has historically been used to denote one of the proposed major races of humankind. Although its validity and utility is disputed by many anthropologists, Caucasoid as a biological classification remains in use, particularly within the field of forensic anthropology.
The Nordic race or Xanthocroic race is one of the putative sub-races into which some late 19th to mid 20th century anthropologists consisted of the Caucasian race. People of the Nordic type were described as having fair skin and hair, light-coloured eyes, tall stature, and they were empirically considered to predominate in the countries of Central and Northern Europe.
Carleton Coon in his book of 1939 The Races of Europe subdivided the Nordic race into three main types, “Corded”, “Danubian” and “Keltic”, besides a “Neo-Danubian” type and a variety of Nordic types altered by Upper Palaeolithic or Alpine admixture. “Exotic Nordics” are morphologically Nordic types that occur in places distant from the northwestern European center of Nordic concentration.
Coon takes the Nordics to be a partially depigmented branch of the greater Mediterranean racial stock. He suggests that the Nordic type emerged as a result of a mixture of “the Danubian Mediterranean strain with the later Corded element”. Hence his two main Nordic types show Corded and Danubian predominance, respectively.
The third “Keltic” or “Hallstatt” type Coon takes to have emerged in the European Iron Age, in Central Europe, where it was subsequently mostly replaced, but “found a refuge in Sweden and in the eastern valleys of southern Norway.”
Coon’s (1939) theory that the Nordic race was a depigmentated variation of the greater Mediterranean racial stock was also supported by his mentor Earnest Albert Hooton who in the same year published Twilight of Man, which notes: “The Nordic race is certainly a depigmented offshoot from the basic long-headed Mediterranean stock. It deserves separate racial classification only because it’s blond hair (ash or golden), it’s pure blue, or gray, eyes”.
A 1990s study by Ulrich Mueller found that depigmentation of Nordic peoples around the Baltic Sea likely occurred due to vitamin D deficiency amongst peoples living there 10,000-30,000 years ago who had a lack of access to vitamin D foods such as dairy products at the time. Depigmentation allowed greater amount of ultraviolet B light to be absorbed through the skin to synthesize to produce vitamin D.
Apologies to Frank Sinatra, but the real Ol’ Blue Eyes has been found—a 7,000-year-old Spaniard whose fossil genes reveals that early Europeans sported blue eyes and dark skin.
Scholars had suspected that blue eyes arrived as an import into Europe, brought by late-arriving farmers who invaded the continent more than 5,000 years ago. Contrary to the conventional picture of a blue-eyed, fair-haired northern European, the study suggests that blue eyes were already common among the continent’s early hunter-gatherers, along with darker skin.
Mapping the blue-eyed boy’s genes is part of ongoing effort to uncover the DNA of ancient humans. The new study in the journal Nature, led by Inigo Olalde of Spain’s Institut de Biología Evolutiva in Barcelona, reports the genetic map of a skeleton found in a Spanish cave.
But those aren’t the only results that matter from the study. The researchers also discovered that a number of disease-resistance genes seen in modern Europeans were active in the ancient Spaniard’s gene map. And the study adds genetic support to archaeological findings that hint that a widespread hunter-gatherer culture cut continuously across Europe in prehistory.
The researchers extracted DNA from a tooth found with the skeleton of man, dubbed La Brana 1, uncovered in a cave near León, Spain, in 2006.
In the lab, they compared the DNA from the man with DNA from other Stone Age Europeans, such as Ötzi, the 5,300-year-old “Iceman” of the Alps (whose people were farmers), and older, partial samples of genes recovered from hunter-gatherer burials in Sweden, Finland, and Siberia. They also compared the results against the DNA of 35 modern-day Europeans.
Around 7,000 years ago, a Stone Age culture spread across Europe, made famous by discoveries of small, rotund “Venus” figurines found in their burials. The study results suggest those people were genetically connected—one thin population of dark-haired hunter-gatherers whose domain reached from Spain to Siberia. They were also partly the ancestors of many of today’s northern Europeans.
Moreover, the ancient Spaniard had multiple genes linked to disease immunity, resistance to bacteria, and risks for musculoskeletal ailments, ones seen in people today. Understanding the origin of these genes can help better explain their function, which could aid medical studies, for example.
For fans of the “Paleo Diet” and other get-back-to-nature notions, the study brings some good news, suggesting that people carry around plenty of genes left over from their primeval forebears. The survival of some disease-resistance genes that mattered greatly in antiquity, as shown by their continuity in modern humans, also can help show how evolution worked its magic on us, and is still working today.
One could argue that a little after the Neolithic is probably the time when population genetics/ethnogenetic isolates (races) played a role and ultimately ethnogenesis took place, which resulted in different ethnic groups forming and biodiversity emerging around the world. Haplogroups still need more research conducted, as they are much older than ethnic groups themselves.
I doubt very much that the early hunter/gatherers of Europe were as dark as the modern Negroes and nor do I believe that the first humans out of Africa were that dark either. There seems to be this popular misconception out there that just because humans came to be in Africa and that the modern, dominant type in Africa (at least south of the Sahara) is the Negroid, that we all somehow descend from Negroids. The Negroid is a relatively recent trend in the human physical type and is likely no older than the Europid type.
It is still unclear exactly when and among which haplogroup fair skin arose, but it has been suggested that the new diet brought by cereral agriculture would have caused deficiencies in vitamin D, which was traditionally absorbed from fish and meat among foragers. Mutations for light skin would have been positively selected among Neolithic agriculturalists to stimulate the production of vitamin D from sunlight in order to compensate for the scarcity of meat.
When agriculture reached what is now the British Isles, there was a very sudden drop off in the amount of seafood consumed. Analysis of the bones of some of the first agriculturists reveals that their diet consisted of almost exclusively of meat & grains.
Some believe that to the early farmers, eating seafood was a taboo and when the native Brits/Doggerlanders adopted agriculture, they adopted the entire cultural package, including not eating any seafood. Before this, seafood was a mainstay for the Mesolithic hunter/gatherer/foragers of NW Europe. The massive shell middens found on the western islands of Scotland are testament to this.
The adoption of farming, stock breeding and sedentary societies during the Neolithic may have resulted in adaptive changes in genes associated with immunity and diet. However, the limited data available from earlier hunter-gatherers preclude an understanding of the selective processes associated with this crucial transition to agriculture in recent human evolution.
White Europeans could have evolved as recently as 5,500 years ago, according to research which suggests that the early humans who populated Britain and Scandinavia had dark skins for millenniums. It was only when early humans gave up hunter-gathering and switched to farming about 5,500 years ago that white skin began to be favoured, say the researchers.
This is because farmed food was deficient in vitamin D, a vital nutrient. Humans can make this in their skin when exposed to sunlight, but dark skin is much less efficient at it. In places such as northern Europe, where sunlight levels are low, the ability to make vitamin D more efficiently could have been crucial to survival.
Johan Moan, of the Institute of Physics at the University of Oslo, said in a research paper: “In England, from 5,500-5,200 years ago the food changed rapidly away from fish as an important food source. This led to a rapid development of … light skin.”
Moan, who worked with Richard Setlow, a biophysicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York state, said vitamin D deficiency could be lethal. Research links it with heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and reduced immunity.
Their research says: “Cold climates and high latitudes would speed up the need for skin lightening. Agricultural food was an insufficient source of vitamin D, and solar radiation was too low to produce enough vitamin D in dark skin.”
Such findings need to be treated with caution. The history of the colonisation of Europe is highly complex because its climate has been dominated by a series of ice ages, punctuated by warm periods. This means early humans ventured to Europe not just once but many times over the past 700,000 years, returning each time the ice melted only to be driven back again when it returned.
Furthermore, the ice ages coincided with, and may even have driven, the evolution of modern humans, with several species such as Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons appearing at various times. The idea that human evolution has often turned on chance mutations is well established. Some researchers have linked the entire evolution of language with mutations in a gene known as FoxP2 occcuring about 50,000 years ago.
Analysis of a a complete pre-agricultural European human genome sequence of an approximately 7,000-year-old Mesolithic skeleton discovered at the La Braña-Arintero site in León, Spain, in the context of other ancient samples suggests the existence of a common ancient genomic signature across western and central Eurasia from the Upper Paleolithic to the Mesolithic.
The La Braña individual carries ancestral alleles in several skin pigmentation genes, suggesting that the light skin of modern Europeans was not yet ubiquitous in Mesolithic times. Moreover, we provide evidence that a significant number of derived, putatively adaptive variants associated with pathogen resistance in modern Europeans were already present in this hunter-gatherer.
The Mesolithic, a period that lasted from 10,000 to 5,000 years ago (between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic), ends with the advent of agriculture and livestock farming, coming from the Middle-East. The arrival of the Neolithic, with a carbohydrate-based diet and new pathogens transmitted by domesticated animals, entailed metabolic and immunological challenges that were reflected in genetic adaptations of post-Mesolithic populations. Among these is the ability to digest lactose, which La Braña individual could not do.
Lalueza-Fox states: “However, the biggest surprise was to discover that this individual possessed African versions in the genes that determine the light pigmentation of the current Europeans, which indicates that he had dark skin, although we can not know the exact shade.”
CSIC researcher, who works at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (a joint centre of CSIC and the University Pompeu Fabra (UPF), located in Barcelona, adds: “Even more surprising was to find that he possessed the genetic variations that produce blue eyes in current Europeans, resulting in a unique phenotype in a genome that is otherwise clearly northern European.”
The study of the genome suggests that current populations nearest to La Braña 1 are in northern Europe, such as Sweden and Finland. In addition, the work points out that La Braña 1 has a common ancestor with the settlers of the Upper Paleolithic site of Mal’ta, located in Lake Baikal (Siberia), whose genome was recovered a few months ago.
Lalueza-Fox concludes: “These data indicate that there is genetic continuity in the populations of central and western Eurasia. In fact, these data are consistent with the archeological remains, as in other excavations in Europe and Russia, including the site of Mal’ta, anthropomorphic figures -called Paleolithic Venus- have been recovered and they are very similar to each other.”
La Braña-Arintero site was discovered by chance in 2006 and excavated by Julio Manuel Vidal Encinas, archeologist of the Council of Castilla y León. The cave, located in a cold mountainous area with a steady temperature and 1,500 meters below the sea level, contributed to the “exceptional” preservation of the DNA from two individuals found inside, and they were called La Braña 1 and La Braña 2.
According to Iñigo Olalde, lead author of the study, “the intention of the team is to try to recover the genome of the individual called La Braña 2, which is worse preserved, in order to keep obtaining information about the genetic characteristics of these early Europeans.”
In certain European populations the occurrence of blond hair is very frequent, and often remains throughout adulthood. The hair color gene MC1R has at least seven variants in Europe and the continent has an unusually wide range of hair and eye shades.
Based on recent genetic information carried out at three Japanese universities, the date of the genetic mutation that resulted in blond hair in Europe has been isolated to about 11,000 years ago during the last Ice Age. Before then, Europeans mostly had darker hair and eyes, which is predominant in the rest of the world.
According to the study, the appearance of blond hair and blue eyes in some northern European women made them stand out from their rivals at a time of fierce competition for scarce males. The study argues that blond hair was produced higher in the Cro-Magnon descended population of the European region because of food shortages 10,000-11,000 years ago following the last glacial period when the most of it was covered by steppe-tundra.
Almost the only sustenance in northern Europe came from roaming herds of mammoths, reindeer, bison and horses and finding them required long, arduous hunting trips in which numerous males died, leading to a high ratio of surviving women to men. This hypothesis argues that women with blond hair posed an alternative that helped them mate and thus increased the number of blonds.
According to the authors of The History and Geography of Human Genes (1994), blond hair became predominant in Europe in about 3000 BC, in the area now known as Lithuania, among the recently arrived Proto-Indo-European settlers though the trait spread quickly through sexual selection into Scandinavia when that area was settled because men found women with blond hair attractive.
This might sound far fetched, but during the middle Bronze Age the Eurasian steppe was home to the Andronovo culture, with archeological links to earlier cultures in what is now southern Russia. Based on the DNA of Andronovo nomads from Kurgans in South Siberia, it seems they had fair skin and a lot of blue eyes and blond hair.
They also overwhelmingly belonged to Y-chromosome haplogroup R1a1a, which is very common today in Central and Eastern Europe and also parts of Scandinavia. So it’ll be interesting to see the pigmentation markers of Mesolithic Eastern Europeans and Central Asians when their genomes become available, probably in the not too distant future, and if they contributed any ancestry to present-day Europeans. Early indications are that they did.
Our autosomal, Y-chromosomal and mitochondrial DNA analyses prehistoric South Siberians reveal that whereas few specimens seem to be related matrilineally or patrilineally, nearly all subjects belong to haplogroup R1a1-M17 which is thought to mark the eastward migration of the early Indo-Europeans.
Our results also confirm that at the Bronze and Iron Ages, south Siberia was a region of overwhelmingly predominant European settlement, suggesting an eastward migration of Kurgan people across the Russo-Kazakh steppe. Finally, our data indicate that at the Bronze and Iron Age timeframe, south Siberians were blue (or green)-eyed, fair-skinned and light-haired people and that they might have played a role in the early development of the Tarim Basin civilization.
According to Danish geneticist Hans Eiberg, “the mutations responsible for the blue eye color most likely originate from the Near East area or northwest part of the Black Sea region, where the great agriculture migration to the northern part of Europe took place in the Neolithic periods about 6–10,000 years ago.”