New diet, sexual attraction may have spurred Europeans' lighter skin

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tags: Europe, human evolution, skin color

Why do some humans have lighter skin than others? Researchers have longed chalked up the difference to tens of thousands of years of evolution, with darker skin protecting those who live nearer to the equator from the sun’s intense radiation. But a new study of ancient DNA concludes that European skin color has continued to change over the past 5000 years, suggesting that additional factors, including diet and sexual attraction, may also be at play.

Our species, Homo sapiens, first arose in Africa about 200,000 years ago, and researchers assume that its first members were as dark-skinned as Africans are today, because dark skin is advantageous in Africa. Dark skin stems from higher levels of the pigment melanin, which blocks UV light and protects against its dangers, such as DNA damage—which can lead to skin cancer—and the breakdown of vitamin B. On the other hand, skin cells need exposure to a certain amount of UV light in order to produce vitamin D. These competing pressures mean that as early humans moved away from the equator, it makes sense that their skin lightened.

Recent research, however, has suggested that the picture is not so simple. For one thing, a number of genes control the synthesis of melanin (which itself comes in two different forms in humans), and each gene appears to have a different evolutionary history. Moreover, humans apparently did not begin to lighten up immediately after they migrated from Africa to Europe beginning about 40,000 years ago. In 2012, for example, a team led by Jorge Rocha, a geneticist at the University of Porto in Portugal, looked at variants of four pigmentation genes in modern Portuguese and African populations and calculated that at least three of them had only been strongly favored by evolution tens of thousands of years after humans left Africa. In January, another team, led by geneticist Carles Lalueza-Fox of the University of Barcelona in Spain, sequenced the genome of an 8000-year-old male hunter-gatherer skeleton from the site of La Braña-Arintero in Spain and found that he was dark rather than light-skinned—again suggesting that natural selection for light skin acted relatively late in prehistory....

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