Monday, October 29, 2007


Evidence from ancient DNA indicates that at least some of the Neanderthals who roamed Europe until around 30,000 years ago had fair skin and red hair. It has long been thought that Neanderthals, who spent longer than their modern human cousins adapting to cold and cloudy conditions, might have lost the dark skin pigment inherited from sunny Africa. Now scientists have found proof that some Neanderthals were red heads.

Researchers analysed DNA samples extracted from the bones of of two Neanderthals from Spain and Italy. They focused on the MCIR gene, which helps skin cells to make the 'sunscreen' pigment melanin. The gene has its origins in Africa, where the sun's ultraviolet rays pose
a real risk of burning and cancer.

"We found a variant of MC1R gene in Neanderthals which is not present in modern humans, but which causes an effect on the hair similar to that seen in modern redheads," said Carles Lalueza-Fox, assistant professor in genetics at the University of Barcelona.

"In Neanderthals, there was probably the whole range of hair colour we see today in modern European populations, from dark to blond right through to red," Dr Lalueza-Fox said. It's impossible to determine the precise frequency of pallid, red-haired Neanderthals that once populated Europe. But the researchers estimate that at least 1% of the population would have carried two copies of this less-active gene, giving them roughly the same pigmentation seen in
modern red-heads.

Sources: BBC News, Nature News, Science (25 October 2007), Channel Four (26 October 2007)


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