Lightly pigmented skin and red hair are traits that originally appeared in humans as a result of a random mutation in the nucleotide sequence of a gene known as MC1R. According to genetic studies, the first hint of this mutation, which acted to alter the complex molecular pathways that deposit pigments in epithelial tissue, occurred approximately 100,000 years ago in Europe. This change in the genetic sequence of MC1R was first exhibited not in humans but in our fellow hominids, the Neanderthals who probably derived a selective advantage from the mutation by allowing them to better metabolize vitamin D from ambient sunlight in the colder, darker climate of northern Europe. It was thought at first that this mutation might have been passed down to humans through interbreeding between the species, and interbreeding may have very well happened, but it now appears that a separate mutation in the MC1R gene gave rise to fairer skin in our early human ancestors almost 60,000 years ago. If this is true, it is an interesting example of parallel evolution whereby the same type of mutation is selected for in separate species in order to give an advantage in similar environmental conditions. What is known is that Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals shared the continent of Europe and parts of the Middle East for at least 10,000 years until, finally the Neanderthals, as a separate species, seem to disappear from the fossil record approximately 20,000 years ago.
If indeed, the gene for red hair arose independently in humans, there is every indication that this would have provided a selective advantage for existence in cold climates just as it did for the Neanderthals. In fact, humans with the MC1R mutation may even have been driven north into the Neanderthals range in Europe as means to escape the harsh African sun which would have left their lightly pigmented skin susceptible to damage from penetrating UV rays in more southerly habitats. What is certain is that by 30,000 years ago our Cro-Magnon ancestors were pushing into Europe and undoubtedly interacting and competing with Neanderthals for resources and territory. It is not exactly clear what drove people from Africa into Europe but lighter skin and reddish hair, genetic traits that seem to have been well established in people living on the coastal fringes of the continent, would, as time went on, develop a peculiar habit of turning up in perplexing locations far removed from their place of origin. Often, there would be little explanation as to how such anomalous genetic traits arrived in distant lands.
Any attempt to trace the genetic history of early humans carrying the MC1R mutation must first begin with a brief account of the first migrations of anatomically modern humans out of Africa beginning somewhere around 100,000 years ago. Evidence provided by the fossil record and DNA analysis of human remains show that our ancestors first began to move out of Africa across a natural land bridge connecting the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula and continued along exposed coastline all the way through what is now Iran into India. Between 60 and 70,000 years ago, a second major wave of anatomically modern humans were on their way out of Africa following the original migrants through the Arabian Peninsula, past the coast of India and far beyond to south Asia and Australia. This second wave of migrants would follow coastlines exposed by the deepening ice age all the way to Australia and New Guinea, eventually becoming the aboriginal people that exist there today.
For many generations, successive waves of Paleolithic humans continued to advance out of Africa into Arabia and the Middle East perhaps to escape progressively worsening climatic conditions as the ice age set in. These migrations would pass, by necessity, through coastal India on their way to lands further east – in fact, as far as the northern coasts of Asia. One wave of migration pushed all the way to China and another took a more southerly route to what is now Korea and Vietnam. These people would eventually become the Austronesian people that would populate East Asia and much of the Pacific.
By 40,000 years ago the ancestors of the Indo-European people had migrated north through the Levant arriving in what is now the Pontic-Steppe region west of the Caucasus Mountains in central Russia. Over many generations, the success and innovation in agricultural technology achieved by these people would begin a great revolution in human civilization. This great technological leap in Neolithic farming would spread out to peoples in all directions from these forbidding plains. It is very probably that somewhere within the migratory range of these proto-Indo-Europeans another mutation occurred that would result in a particular clade or haplogroup of yDNA called R1.
The Very Strange Diaspora of yDNA Haplogroup R1b
Advances in DNA technology are allowing researchers to trace the genetic heritage of people around the world. This is done by statistically determining the amount of change in nucleotide sequences of certain variable regions of chromosomes and comparing these with variants of these sequences in other peoples. One of the most powerful techniques used is to trace accumulated changes in genes passed down paternally from generation to generation on the Y chromosome (yDNA) which is only inherited from father to son. Another is to test for maternal heritage by testing for variation in mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) which in passed on from mothers to offspring of both sexes. A system of classifying clades of paternal DNA through a letter grade was developed and standardized in the 1950’s and 60’s and is still used today albeit with more sophisticated technique and statistical methodology.
Among the many branches of yDNA that appear in the world today, the R1 clade first arose around 40,000 years ago, it probably first appeared somewhere in the Caucasus region of south west Russia in the region between the Black and Caspian Seas or possibly in Anatolia. This mutation would become one of the most important of the major haplogroups associated with European colonization before the Neolithic agricultural revolution. Between 18 and 20,000 years ago, another mutation branched off from the original R1. This mutation became the mysterious R1b haplogroup which along with its widely ranging family of subclades came to dominate much of the Mediterranean basin and Atlantic coastlines of Europe. It is very hard to pinpoint where R1b first arose because of the strange pattern of its dispersal around Europe but the very oldest of the R1b subclades as determined by statistical regression, is still found in the region surrounding ancient Persia, the Caucasus and Anatolia so it is a safe bet that this is where the mutation first arose. Interestingly, this is very close to the range of the parent R1 haplogroup even though R1b’s background level in this region today in minimal at best.
A second major group of related R1 subclades known as R1a branched off from the main family between 10 and 13 thousand years ago. Haplogroup R1a and its associated subclades are indicative of the Indo-European speaking people who populated much of the Europe and the Near East during the Neolithic revolution. While R1 and R1a show a clear and documentable radial outward expansion from their place of origin, the 18,000 year old group of R1b subclades shows a much more erratic pattern of dispersal almost disappearing from its place of origin completely only to turn up in distant and exotic places around the ancient world. Some of these locations would become synonymous with curious megalithic structures constructed with precise engineering of massive blocks of stone.
The R1b mutation is also closely associated with lighter skin and red hair, a result of mutation to the MC1R gene discussed earlier, and must have been dispersed by a people who could navigate the shores of the Mediterranean and the open seas of the North Atlantic. Perhaps a brief description of the pattern of distribution for R1b would help give an indication of how this yDNA haplogroup can provide important clues to the migratory pattern of people during the last ice age. Keep in mind that a density map of modern occurrences of red hair in Europe and that of R1b distribution are almost identical.
Haplogroup R1b is present in 25% of the modern population along the northern coast of the Black sea. This area of Anatolia was known to be a refugia for anatomically modern humans and other hominids including Neanderthals during the ice age. It shows up at less than 15% in the rest of Anatolia and the Balkans and less than this in the Steppes of western Russia where it is thought to have originated. R1b has very low percentages in the Eastern Mediterranean but is significantly higher, close to 60% on the Islands of Sardinia, Malta and the Po Valley of Northern Italy. It occurs in the ancient Berber tribe of Algeria, a very light-skinned blue-eyed people of North Africa at 60% and the Basques, a people often associated with the very first Cro-Magnon people of Europe, carry haplogroup R1b at almost 95%. The Basque homeland around the Pyrenees Mountains was considered another of the great refugia for light-skinned people during the ice-age. The Cro-Magnon people who lived there originally were probably not R1b carriers. The rest of Spain and France are between 50 and 60 percent R1b, a little higher than the percentage for mainland Germany. Brittany on the far Atlantic coast of France is 80% R1b as are Wales and Cornwall on the Atlantic fringe of England. Western Ireland tests at near 80%. The male population of Iceland tests around 40% for R1b as does Scotland and the rest of England. The countries with the very highest percentages of males testing for R1b are also known for high populations of people with red hair.
There are isolated pockets in Africa that have very high percentages of people testing for R1b. Groups of tribesmen who’s people have long populated Northern Cameroon and the Lake Chad district test at almost 80% for R1b. Tribal people from this area known as the Kirdi have long reported a legend that a tribe of light-skinned giants lived in their lands before they arrived there. There are also pockets of R1b in the Sudan coastal region suggesting an ancient migration down the Red Sea and there is some light background distribution throughout the rest of north and eastern Africa, as well.
The striking thing about this pattern of distribution is that at appears so very strongly on the Atlantic fringes of Europe and Africa and yet decreases to almost undetectable levels, often less than 10%, in the suspected regions where its progenitor R1 originally arose. There have been some interesting explanations for this disparity of distribution between the clades of R1. The most pervasive theory suggests that the 10 – 13,000 year old R1a group of subclades associated with Indo-Europeans and the farming revolution that would sweep through Europe from the east became so prevalent there, despite being at least 5,000 years younger than R1b, because their superior weaponry and agricultural technology allowed them to completely dominate R1b males for mates and territory. Effectively, they nearly wiped the older group off the map of eastern Europe – driving them to the Atlantic fringes of the continent. The evidence for this is based solely on the very ancient R1b subclades found in parts of the Middle East suggesting that they must have arisen there and the fact that maternally passed mtDNA seems to be reasonably stable throughout this era suggesting that the Neolithic farmer were able to completely out-compete the more ancient R1b males in Eastern Europe for females.
But this scenario, while plausible, does not explain how an 18,000 year old genetic trait would come to completely dominate the Islands of the Mediterranean, the north coast of Africa and the Atlantic coast of Europe long before R1a males even existed. To reach these distant shores and colonize them during an ice age, people of R1b lineage would require navigation skills that allowed them to sail not just along coastlines close to the safety of shore but also past the pillars of Gibraltar into the cold, deep and dangerous waters of the open Atlantic. Where did this maritime technology come from in such a distant era?
An Alternate Scenario
It is possible to envision another scenario to explain the striking dominance of haplogroup R1b on the western fringes of the Atlantic coast and the throughout the Mediterranean. Further, there is another scenario that can better explain the dispersal of light-skinned, red-haired people into the legends of so many distant cultures around the Paleolithic world. In fact, if we allow that ancient R1b carrying people had the navigational skills and maritime technology to sail open oceans, they may have been able to follow prevailing ocean currents all the way to the Americas and beyond. There is anthropological and archaeological evidence to suggest they did just that. Here is a way it might have happened:
Sometime around 40,000 years ago, a mutation leading to the original R1 haplogroup arose among early humans in northeastern Anatolia or the Caucasus region where it successfully spread to dominate much of the steppes of western Russia, the region around the Black Sea and much of ancient Persia. Approximately 18,000 years ago, the first people with haplogroup R1b arose in the same region and quickly migrated to the north coast of Anatolia. Here they intermingled with the local population of early proto-Indus speaking traders who had inhabited the region many generations before bringing their language and culture with them from the Indus Valley.
From these early Indians, the R1b people learned technologies that would be considered advanced for the day such as metallurgy, written language, astronomical knowledge and early mathematical systems which were inherent traits of the proto-Indians, one of the world’s primal founding civilizations. Being creative and living in an abundant and fertile coastal land they adapted proto-Indian knowledge to their own belief system and culture and even improved on some of the more ancient civilization’s technology. And, they became seafarers, learning first to master navigation of the Black Sea and then venturing beyond into the unexplored waters of the Mediterranean. They migrated north into Europe through the Balkans and interacted with descendants of the Cro-Magnon people there as their R1 one ancestors had been doing for years in the Middle East and Russia.
For two-thousand years, they sailed the Islands of the Mediterranean staying close to the shorelines but pushing steadily forward until they reached the Straits of Gibraltar. They colonized Islands along the way building the first maritime trading network the world would know along coasts that are now under the sea. They settled Sardinia and the Po valley of Italy, Malta and the coast of North Africa where they found a much more lush and forgiving land than exists in the Sahara region today. In fact, North Africa would be the great staging ground where the R1b people would come to nurture their burgeoning civilization. They would eventually build sea ports and trading settlements as far away as the coast of Morocco, the Lake districts of Chad, sunken lands off the coast of Guinea, the Canary Islands and beyond. As the lands of the Levant, Black Sea and Anatolia became more populated with successive waves of immigration, the R1b seafarers saw an opportunity to move west and their world began to be more centred throughout the west Mediterranean and Africa. Though their small settlements are buried under sea and sand today, the Sahara region became the cradle of their nascent civilization where the people thrived in the then lush temperate climate of ice age North Africa.
The R1b carriers discovered the great Cro-Magnon ice age refugia surrounding the Pyrenees Mountains of France and Spain. They settled there and interbred with the light-skinned and red-haired people who had lived there from the depths of the Paleolithic – from time immemorial. This land was so prosperous and abundant during the ice age that after several generations of intermixing, lighter skin and red hair, traits long associated with the ancient MC1R mutation, became a dominant feature of R1b people. In this golden age of west Mediterranean expansion, the last of the Neanderthals had been assimilated into the general population. Though hybrid Cro-Magnon/ Neanderthal giants were not uncommon, and in fact had come to be revered as spirit guides, the genetic background of the two closely related hominids had mostly blended into the dominant human genome. The Neanderthal contribution of MC1R mutations further contributed to the light-skinned and red-haired gene pool which came to dominate the region.
As their navigation and shipbuilding skills improved and their culture advanced and grew, these seafaring explorers would pass through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Atlantic where they would discover the coasts of Brittany, Wales and Ireland. From Africa they would colonize the Canary Islands and other areas of the coast that may be underwater today. Here, the original light-skinned and often red-haired Guanches natives, their bloodlines diluted through years of invasion and colonisation, still retain a high (50%) ratio of R1b lineage to this very day. Anthropologists have determined that the Guanches are closely related to the light-skinned Berbers of North Africa another descendent group of close to 80% R1b lineage. They would move over land to the southwest building trading forts in Chad and Cameroon and possibly long sunken ports off the Gulf of Guinea. From here, they built bigger ships and developed better navigational skills and further explored westward into the Atlantic.
It is likely that people who had the navigational ability to sail the Mediterranean between Africa and Europe and who had managed to navigate the north Atlantic coast as they must have done to reach Wales and Ireland, could have within a thousand years or two learned to follow the same ocean currents that Columbus did to America some 16,000 years later. Following the South Atlantic current, people embarking from equatorial Africa could have easily reached any mid-Atlantic islands still exposed during the ice age and even passed beyond these to the coast of Brazil and the great Amazon river basin. Any sailor using the North Atlantic current out of the Canary Islands could have reached the Caribbean and Central America in no more time than it took Columbus.
So, if the DNA evidence provided by the distribution map of Haplogroup R1b shows that people with this genetic trait who were also known for light skin and red hair, were conclusively native to all the regions around coastal Europe and Africa just described and can be proven to have been living there for many thousands of years, is the preceding scenario not only possible but plausible? After all, even at ice age sea levels, R1b dominant people were not just walking across the Mediterranean. They must have been proficient seafarers. How far across the sea and land could they have travelled and explored in the long ages from their origin 18,000 years ago until the ice age began to wane in more historical times? By the time the R1a carrying Indo-Europeans began moving west from the Russian Steppes to conquer the continent during the Neolithic agricultural revolution, their R1b seafaring cousins had likely already discovered whole new continents and crossed into vast new seas.
Into the Americas
Evidence for people reaching the Americas long before the advent of Clovis culture and the land bridge across the Bering Sea is mounting. There is a very strong correlation between ancient artifacts discovered in various locations around the Chesapeake Bay and Mississippi River basin and the Solutrean culture of Cro-Magnon, western Europe. These finds have been carbon dated to between 20 and 26,000 years ago – long before the earliest dates for Clovis. Skulls with Caucasoid features have been unearthed in several locations dating back 9 and 10,000 years ago suggesting more evidence of very early European contact with the Americas. Recently, a 16,000 year old female skull was discovered near Mexico City with the same narrow jaw and horizontal profile suggestive of Caucasoid rather than Amerindian features. Many American Indians of the northwest and beyond carry a mtDNA clade that is indicative of a European maternal line of descent.
Native peoples in the American south west and even as far away as Aztec and Mayan Mexico have long told legendary tales of pale-skinned, red-haired giants who populated their lands long before they had arrived and with whom they waged bloody wars. In the early part of the last century, archaeological evidence found mummified human remains buried under bat guano in an ancient horseshoe cave near Lovelock, Nevada. These remains and artifacts associated with them may give substantial evidence to back the claim that these ancient legends were more than myth. Skeletons were recovered reputed to have been in some cases over six-and-a-half feet tall with red-haired, Caucasoid features. Other strange artifacts discovered at the site, many of which are still on view at a local museum substantiate claims that an unusual type of people very different from the usual Amerinds were living here in ancient times. An account of the discovery was reported in the Nevada Review-Miner in June of 1931.
Anecdotal accounts from explorers and administrators who followed the Spanish conquest into Peru tell of mythical Inca legends where light skinned, bearded travellers arrived in their lands from the distant shores of Lake Titicaca where they had built a great city. The newcomers established dominion over ancient Peru in the distant past long before the ascent of the Incas and were said to have brought advanced cultural traits and new technology which advanced civilization in the region. There are many anecdotal tales of explorers encountering light-skinned, curly, red-haired Indians among the natives of Peru. It is said that the Aztecs of Mexico had a similar story of bearded white people who came to Mexico bringing higher knowledge and advanced civilization to their ancestors in the distant past. While physical evidence or a strong genetic correlation between Latin America and the old world is frustratingly difficult to unearth, there are tantalizing hints that in very ancient times people with R1b traits and lineage were making their way to the new world and beyond to the islands of the Pacific.
Many European explorers of different nationalities reported populations of lighter-skinned, red-skinned “white people” among the natives of the Pacific Isles. From Easter Island to Ra’iatea and Tonga – even far across the Pacific all the way to New Zealand, there is photographic, anthropologic and increasingly, genetic evidence of European people having made their way across the Ocean long before the Spanish conquest. Jacob Roggeveen, Dutch explorer reported seeing “entirely white men,” on Easter Island in the early 1700’s. Jean Dausset, a scientist who worked on mapping the human genome, discovered genetic evidence of Human Lymphocyte Antigen markers very similar to those of the European Basques among the Easter Islanders whose ancestry suggested multiple migrations from both the east and west in ancient times. Thor Heyerdahl whose famous journey across the Pacific from Peru was documented in several of his books, undertook his Con-Tiki expedition in order to prove his theory that ancient people had taken this route to populate Pacific islands along the path of the South Pacific current. Heyerdahl had earlier been struck by the Caucasoid appearance of a certain long-eared faction of the Islanders and had set out on voyage to prove that an ocean journey from America to Easter Island was possible. Interestingly, megalithic structures dating from very ancient occupation of Easter Island bore striking similarities to those of pre-Inca Peru and an ancient writing script from that period bore similarities to proto-Indus writing from pre-historic India.
As an aside, plant crops native South America such as the sweet potato and mulberry plant appear to have been brought by humans across the pacific as far west as the Islands of New Zealand in pre-Columbian times. The word for sweet potato sounds almost identical in all of the Pacific Islands this Native American crop reached in pre-historic times.
And Then Everything Changed
By way of genetic and anthropologic evidence, it has been possible to trace the path of lighter-skinned, red-haired, people with descent from R1b through lands as diverse as Anatolia, Sardinia, Malta, to the farthest northern coasts of Atlantic Europe. R1b occurs in statistically significant populations in Algeria, Morocco, Lake Chad and Cameroon and beyond to the Canary Islands. Though genetic testing has not been thoroughly conducted in Peru and any later results may be overly influenced by admixture with Europeans that arrived during the Spanish conquest, there is already genetic evidence of contact from Europe far before Columbus arrived. By some, so far, unexplained quirk of genetics, Peru has one of the highest percentages of residual Neanderthal genes in the world. This result could only be explained by very ancient contact between South America and Europe. Further genetic testing is required but it may very well be that people with Caucasoid appearance travelled as far as Easter Island and New Zealand by sea. As we have seen, it possible to trace these very early human migrations from the very distant past by following the genetic footprints they left behind.
But what happened when, as the ice age ended, the seas began to rise flooding out many of the coastal areas that had been habitable before? Perhaps a great exodus took place to safe and familiar lands? It is possible that climate change and flooding along with attacks from indigenous peoples under pressure in a changing world forced a retreat from the new world to back to coastal Europe and the Mediterranean where this great seafaring nation had been born? A review of all the archaeological evidence from these regions shows that as the ice age ended, advanced stone-working cultures began to quickly and mysteriously arise all over the lands where R1b predominates. From Ireland to England, Brittany and Morocco, Malta and Anatolia and even the Near East and Egypt herself, megalithic structures began to arise almost over-night. Many of these structures show levels of engineering precision unheard of for they era in which they arose. Often they give tantalizing clues as to a mysterious connection with astronomical and geographic phenomenon thought to be unknown by Neolithic farming people of the era. Although there is much evidence of similar monumental buildings occurring in the Far East, these seem to arise in a slightly different time-frame than those of coastal Europe and Africa. By far the most famous examples of magnificent megalithic structures such as Stonehenge, Newgrange and Ggigantija occur in the lands where R1b predominates.
Taking into account the genetic evidence, archaeological discoveries, anthropological studies and oral traditions found around the world, a story of an ancient seafaring nation of lighter-skinned, often red-headed people with Caucasoid features emerges from the forgotten past of the Paleolithic world. Using an 18,000 year old window of opportunity, it is possible to show how these people could have explored and colonized Africa, the Americas and beyond into the Pacific ocean where evidence of their great migration still occurs today. Further, one can imagine what a great cataclysm could do to such a seafaring people as the ice age ended around 12,000 years ago. As their cities were inundated under rising seas, they fled back to their homeland in Europe where they used the technology they had gained from thousands of years of exploration and discovery to build great megalithic structures everywhere they settled in the Neolithic world. Even in ancient Egypt, archaeological evidence from mummified remains suggests that far back into the ancient kingdoms people from ruling classes were sometimes lighter-skinned and red-haired. Finally, this has been a human journey not a European one. There is compelling genetic evidence to suggest that Negroid Africans were landing in Brazil and exploring the Amazon at the same time as the R1b people were crossing the Atlantic and that Austronesian people were crossing the Pacific towards the Americas from the east. The point is that through studying human genetics, we can finally fill in some of the missing pieces of our incomplete knowledge of human history.
Works and Websites Consulted
- Cavalli-Sforza; The Great Human Diasporas: The History of Diversity and Evolution, Helix Books, 1996.
- Hancock; Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization, Crown, 2002.
- Heyerdahl; American Indians in the Pacific: The Theory behind the Kon Tiki Expedition, Forum, 1952.
- Heyerdahl; Kon Tiki: Six Men Cross the Pacific on a Raft, Rand McNally & Co., 1950.
- Stanford, Bradley, Collins; Across Atlantic Ice: The Origins of American Clovis Culture, University of California Press, 2012.
- Thornsby; The Polynesian Gene Pool: An Early Contribution by Amerinds to Easter Island, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 2012.