Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Selection for fair skin in Europeans and North Asians


Selection for fair skin in different human populations (Huang et al. 2021)

Selection for fair skin was about four times stronger among ancestral Europeans than it was among ancestral North Asians or the earlier shared ancestors of both groups. So says a recent genome study.


Huang et al. (2021) examined genes that influence skin pigmentation to calculate the strength of selection for lighter skin among the ancestors of today’s Europeans and North Asians. They concluded that selection for lighter skin was strongest among the unique ancestors of present-day Europeans, with a selection pressure of 25.9. It was about four times weaker among the unique ancestors of North Asians (5.61) and the earlier shared ancestors of both groups (6.5). East Asians actually became darker after they split from North Asians, with a negative selection pressure of -5.53.


Our estimate shows that the modern European lineage had the largest selective pressure (s4=0.0259/generation) on light pigmentation than the other branches, suggesting that recent natural selection favoured light pigmentation in Europeans. Recent studies using ancient DNA could support our observation of recent directional selection in Europeans (Huang et al. 2021, p. 3)


This finding supports earlier findings. Modern humans remained dark-skinned in Europe long after they had spread north into northern latitudes some 45,000 years ago. It was not until 20,000 years ago that alleles for white skin made their appearance (Beleza et al. 2013; Canfield et al. 2014; Norton and Hammer 2007). As a Science correspondent concluded: "The implication is that our European ancestors were brown-skinned for tens of thousands of years" (Gibbons 2007).


Those ancestors were initially proto-Eurasians, and it was only later that they differentiated to become respectively Europeans and North Asians. Only then, and only in the European lineage, did skin color begin to lighten at a fast rate. This rapid evolution seems to have been confined to a relatively small area that stretched from the Baltic to central Siberia. Elsewhere, in western and southern Europe, people remained dark-skinned until almost the dawn of history, as shown by DNA dated to 11,000 years ago from England, 8,000 years ago from Luxembourg, and 7,000 years ago from Spain (Brace et al. 2019; Lazaridis et al. 2014; Olalde et al. 2014).


The fair skin phenotype, together with a variety of hair and eye colors, would later spread throughout all of Europe, while going extinct east of the Urals. In the latter region it would persist into historic times. At sites in south-central Siberia, dating from the third millennium BC to the fourth century AD, genetic analysis has shown that most of the buried individuals had blue or green eyes, light hair (blond, red, light brown), and light skin (Bouakaze et al. 2009). South Siberian peoples were, in fact, described as having "green eyes" and "red hair" in old Chinese records (Keane 1886, p. 703).


It seems that Europeans acquired their current appearance very fast, perhaps ten to twenty thousand years ago during the last ice age. Initially confined to northeastern Europe and parts of Siberia, the new phenotype would in time spread to the rest of the continent ... on the eve of recorded history. Only then did all Europeans come to look “European” (Frost 2014; Frost 2020).




Beleza, S., A.M. Santos, B. McEvoy, I. Alves, C. Martinho, E. Cameron, et al. (2013). The timing of pigmentation lightening in Europeans. Molecular Biology and Evolution 30(1): 24-35. https://doi.org/10.1093/molbev/mss207


Bouakaze, C., C. Keyser, E. Crubézy, D. Montagnon, and B. Ludes. (2009). Pigment phenotype and biogeographical ancestry from ancient skeletal remains: inferences from multiplexed autosomal SNP analysis. International Journal of Legal Medicine 123(4): 315-325.



Brace, S., Y. Diekmann, T.J. Booth, Z. Faltyskova, N. Rohland, S. Mallick, et al. (2019). Ancient genomes indicate population replacement in Early Neolithic Britain. Nature Ecology & Evolution 3(5): 765-771. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-019-0871-9


Canfield, V.A., A. Berg, S. Peckins, S.M. Wentzel, K.C. Ang, S. Oppenheimer, and K.C. Cheng. (2014). Molecular phylogeography of a human autosomal skin color locus under natural selection. G3, 3(11): 2059-2067. https://doi.org/10.1534/g3.113.007484


Frost, P. (2014). The puzzle of European hair, eye, and skin color. Advances in Anthropology 4(2): 78-88. http://www.scirp.org/journal/PaperInformation.aspx?PaperID=46104


Frost, P. (2020). White Skin Privilege: Modern Myth, Forgotten Past. Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture 4(2): 63-82. https://doi.org/10.26613/esic/4.2.190



Gibbons, A. (2007). American Association of Physical Anthropologists Meeting: European skin turned pale only recently, gene suggests. Science 20 April 2007, 316(5823): 364.



Huang, X., S. Wang, L. Jin, and Y. He. (2021). Dissecting dynamics and differences of selective pressures in the evolution of human pigmentation. Biology Open 15 February 2021; 10(2): bio056523. https://doi.org/10.1242/bio.056523


Keane, A.H. (1886). Asia with Ethnological Appendix. London: Edward Stanford.


Lazaridis, I., N. Patterson, A. Mittnik, G. Renaud, S. Mallick, K. Kirsanow, et al. (2014). Ancient human genomes suggest three ancestral populations for present-day Europeans. Nature 513(7518): 409-413. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature13673


Norton, H.L., and M.F. Hammer. (2007). Sequence variation in the pigmentation candidate gene SLC24A5 and evidence for independent evolution of light skin in European and East Asian populations. Program of the 77th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, p. 179.


Olalde, I., M.E. Allentoft, F. Sanchez-Quinto, G. Santpere, C.W.K. Chiang, M. DeGiorgio, et al. (2014). Derived immune and ancestral pigmentation alleles in a 7,000-year-old Mesolithic European. Nature 507 (7491): 225-228. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12960



Malcolm Smith said...

"East Asians actually became darker after they split from North Asians". I would have thought it unlikely that a lost character eg one of the genes for melanin, could be re-evolved. Isn't population replacement a more likely explanation? The original Great Wall of China was built to keep out the Xiong-nu, horse riding barbarians from the steppes, who were described as auburn haired. (In contrast, the Chinese called themselves the "black haired people".) The use of the horse for riding, as distinct from drawing chariots, began among white people on the Russian steppes, of which the Scythians were a good example. This would have given them the opportunity to move east and become the Xiong-nu. But eventually, the "black haired people", such as the Tatars and the the Mongols learned how to ride horses, and push the auburn haired people back where they came from.

John Rockwell said...

"At sites in south-central Siberia, dating from the third millennium BC to the fourth century AD, genetic analysis has shown that most of the buried individuals had blue or green eyes, light hair (blond, red, light brown), and light skin (Bouakaze et al. 2009). South Siberian peoples were, in fact, described as having "green eyes" and "red hair" in old Chinese records (Keane 1886, p. 703)."

Where did they go?

Peter Frost said...


New mutations arise all the time, and not all alleles are totally lost. I don't see how population replacement could be used as an explanation for an analysis done on present-day East Asians and North Asians.


Not all populations get to live forever. They went extinct.

Stephen said...

Where is the line drawn between North Asian and East Asian people in this instance?

Anonymous said...

The two mutations that influence skin color in the most drastic way we know, one in the SLC24a5 gene and the other in the SLC45a2 gene, were already present in Anatolia, during the Neolithic period (something like 10,000 years ago). One of these mutations was also present in individuals from the Natufian culture! When Lazarids releases the 25000 yrs Dzudzuana hunter sequence, I believe it will reveal that they had at least one of these mutations. The mutation of the SLC24a5 gene appears to radiate from the Caucasus.

Robertus said...
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