We’re accustomed to seeing portrayals of early humans (aka cavemen) as slightly tanned but otherwise mostly European-looking. But a recent study reported in NBC challenges that assumption, finding that as fairly recently as 7,000 years ago, Europeans were dark-skinned as Africans.
A 7,000-year-old European man from a transitional time known as the Mesolithic Period (from 10,000 to 5,000 years ago) whose bones were left behind in a Spanish cave had the dark skin of an African, but the blue eyes of a Scandinavian. He was a hunter-gatherer who ate a low-starch diet and couldn’t digest milk well — which meshes with the lifestyle that predated the rise of agriculture. But his immune system was already starting to adapt to a new lifestyle.
Researchers found all this out not from medical records, or from a study of the man’s actual skin or eyes, but from an analysis of the DNA extracted from his tooth.
The remains of the Mesolithic male, dubbed La Braña 1, were found in 2006 in the La Braña-Arintero cave complex in northwest Spain. In the Nature paper, the researchers describe how they isolated the ancient DNA, sequenced the genome and looked at key regions linked to physical traits — including lactose intolerance, starch digestion and immune response.
The biggest surprise was that the genes linked to skin pigmentation reflected African rather than modern European variations. That indicates that the man had dark skin, “although we cannot know the exact shade,” Carles Lalueza-Fox, a member of the research team from the Spanish National Research Council, said in a news release.
Meanwhile, The Guardian gets to another big, social implication:
Another surprise finding was that the man had blue eyes. That was unexpected, said Lalueza-Fox, because the mutation for blue eyes was thought to have arisen more recently than the mutations that cause lighter skin colour. The results suggest that blue eye colour came first in Europe, with the transition to lighter skin ongoing through Mesolithic times.
On top of the scientific impact, artists might have to rethink their drawings of the people. “You see a lot of reconstructions of these people hunting and gathering and they look like modern Europeans with light skin. You never see a reconstruction of a mesolithic hunter-gatherer with dark skin and blue eye colour,” Lalueza-Fox said. Details of the study are published in the journal, Nature.
It’s no secret (though perhaps underplayed) that modern humans originate from Africa, and thus would have had similar pigmentation and physiology to indigenous African (although note that Sub-Saharan Africa is the most diverse area in the world, so there is no quintessential African look, and many different skin shades and phenotypes are represented).
However, the revelation that Europeans were — fairly recently by evolutionary standards — once indistinguishable from many modern Africans challenges popular attitudes towards race and human identity. We have a tendency to apply our modern biases to historical retrospection, and to over-emphasize physical differences that are superficial and ultimately artificial. Notions of race, nationhood, and what constitutes “European” or “African” are all social constructs of our very recent making.
Granted, this doesn’t mean that such concepts are worthless or negative, per se — although, needless to say, the potential for harm is great — but it does cloud up the facts about humanity’s origins and history, and overlooks how fundamentally arbitrary and transient our racial and national identities are.