A group of Spanish geneticists was the first to announce that our European predecessors had an unusual hair color, Science magazine reports. Geneticists separated MC1R gene out of fossils of two Neanderthal men. As a result of this gene mutation modern humans may have red hair and very light-colored skin. The Neanderthal men also had the mutated MC1R gene. It was a different kind of mutation in comparison with the contemporary one, but the matter stays the same: this gene makes people red-haired.
It is worthy of note that the Neanderthal men first appeared in Europe at least 400 thousand years ago and started to disappear, when ancient people arrived from Africa. Now scientists believe that the Neanderthal men died out in the area not far from Gibraltar 24-28 thousand years ago. It is still unknown why they became extinct. It could be a climate change, hunger, weak but clever Homo sapiens or something else.
It is considered that red-haired people have no evolutional advantages. Nowadays, red-haired people make only two percent of the entire population in the world. The percentage is higher in Ireland - 12 percent. However, a dermatology professor from the University of Edinburgh, Jonathan Rhys, considers this hair color to be an evolutional contingency which has nothing to do with the natural selection. But it seems strange that two Neanderthal men separated in time and space (one was found in Italy and the other one – in Northern Spain) had one and the same hair color.
There are no red-haired and white-faced aboriginals in Africa. People with dark skin and hair that protect them from extra-ultraviolet and skin cancer consequently are typical of this continent. When Africans get into more northern latitudes of the European continent, where there is much less ultraviolet, they lose their evolutional advantage of dark skin and any genetic whitening mutation becomes possible and even favorable from the evolutional point of view, since organism starts producing vitamin D that is quite necessarily in cold climate. Thus, red-haired people can appear under such conditions.
In spite of their small number and contingency of the origin, red-haired people are rather famous. Such red-haired persons as Columbus, Isabella of Spain, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander the Great, Leonardo da Vinci, Catherine II, Winston Churchill, Oliver Cromwell, Ponce de Leon, Marquis de Sade, Queen Elizabeth I, Galilei, Vladimir Lenin and many others have left significant traces in the history of human civilization.
It is very difficult to extract genetic information out of bones dating back to prehistorical periods. That is why the Spanish scientists did not count on success much. They were incredibly satisfied to find the mutated MC1R gene. They did not believe their own discovery and asked scientists from other laboratories to check the results. But it is only the beginning, the tip of the iceberg. Genetics is a comparatively new instrument that affords to extract much more information from ancient bones than before. Scientists hope to find out what our predecessors looked like, how they evolved, what illnesses they had, how clever they were, etc.
Translated by Ksenia Sedyakina