Saturday, February 8, 2014



A Recent Phenomenon

Where Did White People Come From?

Last month the Guardian reported that a team of scientists studying early homo sapiens in Europe had extracted DNA from the tooth of a male hunter-gatherer who lived in what is now the Asturias region of northern Spain around 7000 years ago. They drew some surprising conclusions from the analysis. The man was dark-skinned but blue-eyed. His nearest DNA matches with contemporary ethnicities are with Swedes and Finns, among the palest of peoples.
Scholars had earlier argued that blue eyes had appeared as the result of a genetic mutation somewhere between 10,000 and 6000 years ago. (Before that all humans had brown eyes.) But until a few years ago most supposed that the appearance of white skin had occurred much earlier. The European gene pool with its light complexion was supposed to have decisively “split off” from the (also light-skinned) East Asian gene pool by around 50,000 years ago, after which homo sapiens first appeared in Europe, then in China.
But this timeline may need to be adjusted. It now looks like European whiteness may have appeared much more recently. Maybe there were no “white people” in Europe as recently as 7000 years ago, during the lifetime of the blue-eyed hunter-gatherer, whom the Guardian article calls “swarthy.”
The new research supports the theory that the spread of agriculture in Europe beginning (only) around 6,000 years ago favored the survival of people with a genetic mutation producing fair skin. The new grain-based diet lacked Vitamin D, vital to teeth, bone health, and to the immune system. Meanwhile humans inhabiting northern climates received less sun exposure than people in most parts of Africa. Light skin absorbs Vitamin D from the sun much more rapidly than dark skin and so becomes a real advantage from certain latitude, according to the theory.
The recent report particularly interests me, since my own DNA test, supported by family records, shows me to be of 61% Scandinavian and 3% Finnish ancestry. My mother was half-Norwegian, half-Swedish and my father’s mother half-Norwegian too. (I’m not sure where the Finnish comes in, but looking at the map and thinking about Scandinavian history it does makes sense.) My DNA probably pretty closely matches that of the blue-eyed people living around the Bay of Biscay 7000 years ago.
It’s somehow stimulating to think of distant forefathers having eyes like mine but very different skin. Also stimulating to think that my blue eyes are more deeply rooted in my genetic history than my white skin. I would have thought the opposite.
7000 years ago is of course a very long time back—over 2000 years before the construction of Stonehenge or the first Egyptian pyramids. It’s before class division, the state, written language. Agriculture was just beginning in the...