How white skin evolved in Europeans: Pale complexions only spread in the region 8,000 years ago, study claims

Original post from Daily Mail


  • 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 

The first Europeans looked dramatically different to many of the fair skinned populations that live there today.

In fact, new research suggests Caucasians were a relatively recent addition to the area, arriving on the continent just 8,000 years ago.

They joined a much darker-skinned population who were the original migrants to Europe from Africa, arriving around 40,000 years ago.

Scroll down for video 

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 work, presented at the 84th annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, provides a clearer picture of recent evolution in Europe.

It contradicts the popular view that skin lightened as humans travelled from Africa and the Middle East into Europe tens of thousands of years ago.

They believed that a sun that was lower in the sky, along with shorter days, would have favoured lighter skin – but now scientists are saying this isn’t the whole story.

The new study compares genomes of 83 people found in archaeological sites across Europe with those of modern Europeans, according to a report by Ann Gibbons for Science magazine.

Iain Mathieson, a postdoc in the Harvard University, found five genes associated with changes in diet and skin pigmentation that underwent natural selection.

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

Three of the genes were associated with producing light skin.

The study found that 8,500 years ago, early hunter-gatherers in Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary had darker skin.

In the far north of Europe, seven people from the 7700-year-old Motala archaeological site in southern Sweden had both light skin gene variants, SLC24A5 and SLC45A2.

When the first farmers from the Near East arrived in Europe, they carried with them genes for light skin.

Interbreeding with southern Europeans spread that gene, until it became widespread around 5,800 years ago.


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.’

The same research team tracked traits for height and lactose tolerance and found that gene variants for tallness in northern and central Europeans were favoured 8,000 years ago.

At the same time, selection favoured show people in Italy and Spain starting 8,000 years ago, possibly due to adapting to colder temperatures and a different diet, according to the study.

Penn State anthropological geneticist George Perry told Science, the research gives ‘a much more detailed picture now of how selection works.’

The study follows separate research last month which found a wave of migrants 4,500 years ago left their trace in the DNA and languages of modern Europeans.

The study analysed the DNA of 69 people who lived across Europe between 8,000 and 3,000 years ago.

Among the shifts in the genetic make-up of ancient Europeans they found that DNA associated with the Yamnaya people appeared strongly in what is now northern Germany.

The Yamnaya were herders who lived in the steppe north of the Black and Aral Seas.

This injection of DNA indicates ‘a massive migration into the heartland of Europe from its eastern periphery,’ said the researchers, led by David Reich of Harvard Medical School.

The latest study also found a boost coming from the Yamnaya migration, with the population have the greatest genetic potential for being tall.

Such a large-scale influx would likely have affected not just the DNA but ancient cultures as well.

Although genes can’t determine what people spoke, the researchers argue that their findings could influence the debate about the origins of Indo-European tongues.

Indo-European languages include more than 400 tongues, from modern languages such as English and Polish to ancient languages like Hittite and Sanskrit.

Basque, which is spoken in south-west France and northern Spain, is not Indo-European, and may be the only surviving relic of earlier languages once spoken more widely, according to the BBC. 

Linguists have long debated whether Indo-European languages came to Europe with farmers migrating from the Middle East or some other group, such as the Yamnaya.

Previously, researchers had believed that Indo-European language spread some 8,500 years ago, when the first farmers from the Near East, now modern day Turkey, brought it 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

 Read more: