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Skin Color

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Male figurine, pottery, c. 7,000–5,000 years ago, Greece, Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
This is one of several findings with a common theme: the farther back in time we go, the less familiar people look. And we don't have to go very far. This fact came up in a column I wrote about the Americas. If we turn back the clock, Amerindians look more and more European, yet... Read More
Egyptian painting of a Libyan, a Kushi, a Syrian, and an Egyptian.  In the Middle East, the Egyptians were seen as the Dark Other. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Mention the term ‘skin color’ and people usually think of race or ethnicity. Yet this way of thinking became dominant only when Europeans began moving out and colonizing the rest of the world, beginning in the 16th century. Previously, physical features were less useful as ethnic markers. We knew about and quarrelled with those groups... Read More
Mary Magdalene, Frederick Sandys (1829-1904). Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Is the physical appearance of Europeans solely or even mainly an adaptation to climate?
Most humans have black hair, brown eyes, and brown skin. Europeans are different: their hair is also brown, flaxen, golden, or red, their eyes also blue, gray, hazel, or green, and their skin pale, almost like an albino's. This is particularly the case in northern and eastern Europeans. How did this color scheme come about?... Read More
Subjects identified the left-hand image as a woman and the right-hand one as a man. Yet the two images differ only in skin tone. Study by Richard Russell, Sinha Laboratory for Vision Research, MIT.   Skin color differs by sex: women are fairer and men browner and ruddier. Women also exhibit a greater contrast in... Read More
Kostenki Man, reconstructed by Mikhail Gerasimov (1907-1970). An early European who was not yet phenotypically European.
Who were the first Europeans? We now have a better idea, thanks to a new paper about DNA from a man who lived some 38,700 to 36,200 years ago. His remains were found at Kostenki, a well-known Upper Paleolithic site in central European Russia (Seguin-Orlando et al., 2014). Kostenki Man tells us several things about... Read More
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The physical appearance of Europeans seems to result from a selection pressure that acted primarily on women and only secondarily on men. This is especially true for highly visible traits on or near the face—the focus of visual attention. I have just published a paper on "The puzzle of European hair, eye, and skin color."... Read More
T?t?roaice – Petre Iorgulescu-Yor (source). Today, the steppes north of the Black Sea lie within the European world—politically, culturally, and demographically. Not so long ago, they were home to nomads of Central Asian origin. A new study shows that Europeans underwent strong selection for white skin, non-brown eyes, and non-black hair … during historic times!... Read More
The skin color is about right. Not so sure about the eyes (source: Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)). There seems to have been a succession of changes to hair, eye, and skin color within a relatively restricted area of Europe. These changes then spread outward, the changes to eye color being apparently the earliest. Ancient... Read More
Venus of Willendorf (30,000 – 27,000 BP). Is that a special headdress … or peppercorn hair? (source: Matthias Kabel) Europeans already had blue eyes while still hunter-gatherers. This is what we’ve learned after retrieving ancient DNA from two Mesolithic individuals, one from Luxembourg, dated to 8,000 years ago, and another from Spain, dated to 7,000... Read More
When did early Europeans acquire their palette of eye colors? And their palette of hair colors? That question may soon be answered with retrieval of ancient DNA. (source: Dipoar) As the new year begins, I’m particularly interested in the following topics. When did Europeans begin to look European? It seems that this evolution took place... Read More
Infant stump-tailed macaque (source). Other photos showing adults and infants (courtesy of Monte M. Taylor and Christopher H. Taylor). Why do humans have so little body hair? This question is addressed by Sandel (2013) in his comparative review of hair density in 23 primates and 29 nonprimate mammals. There seems to have been a long-term... Read More
How to hyperstimulate a sex-recognition algorithm. Women have higher luminous contrast between their facial skin and their lip/eye color. This contrast effect is influenced not only by degree of lightness but also by degree of redness (source). Women are fairer in complexion because their skin has less melanin and less blood (Edwards and Duntley, 1939).... Read More
Beyoncé Knowles, 2012. Is skin bleaching consistent with indigenous African values? (source) A Zambian-born sociologist visited his home village with his white American wife and two of their children. Having lost his way, he asked an elderly lady for directions. She gladly told him: But then she said, addressing his boys in the car, in... Read More
The female torso visibly reddens towards the end of the menstrual cycle. Do men unconsciously pick up on this visual cue? (Figure from Edwards and Duntley, 1949) Women vary in skin color over the menstrual cycle. From mid-cycle on, their skin steadily reddens because of an increase in blood flow that peaks in the day... Read More
Austronesian woman (Roekiah Soeara, 1942, Indonesian actress - source). Austronesian and Papuan peoples intermixed in coastal Papua-New Guinea and on the islands to the east. This intermixture seems to have been mainly due to Austronesian women joining polygynous Papuan households. Did this happen through peaceful exchange (brides for land?) or through raiding and kidnapping? In... Read More
A new arrival (painting by Giuilo Rosati - source). The privilege of white skin … Earlier this year, fashion model Cameron Russell condemned the unbearable whiteness of her industry: […] I won a genetic lottery, and I am a recipient of a legacy. For the past few centuries, we have defined beauty not just as... Read More
Of all humans, male and female, European women have the whitest skin and the most diverse range of hair and eye colors. Are European physical characteristics really female characteristics? (source) People of European origin have an unusually diverse palette of hair and eye colors. This diversity is commonly ascribed to their unusually white skin. Ancestral... Read More
Tanned arm (source). Underarm skin color used to be a reliable measure of constitutive pigmentation (skin color before tanning). Is it still? After puberty, girls become lighter-skinned than boys. This sexual differentiation has been shown to be hormonal in origin by a digit ratio study (Manning, Bundred, and Mather, 2004), by studies on normal, castrated,... Read More
No, that’s not a climatic adaptation (actress Lily Cole - source) “European skin turned pale only recently”—such was the headline in Science five years ago. The report had been presented by a postdoc, Heather Norton, at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (Norton & Hammer, 2007). Over the following years, I... Read More
Red-winged blackbird (source). Is dark coloration directly linked to male aggressiveness? For the past thirty years, psychologist Philippe Rushton has been using life history theory to explain human differences in many areas: IQ, sexual development, parental investment, mating system, time orientation, etc. Initially, he saw skin color as being incidental. In recent years, however, he... Read More
Gender asymmetry in preferences for male and female faces (Lewis, 2012) “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This proverb is true in the sense that beauty is a mental judgment—an output of different algorithms within the human brain. Some of these algorithms have been formed by personal experience, but others are hardwired to... Read More
Child making Nike shoes (source). Western business now has access to labor under conditions not seen since the days of Charles Dickens. My predictions from last year: It won’t be such a bad year. Stock markets will reach record highs and pundits will say we’ve entered a sustained boom. For many people, life will never... Read More
The inferotemporal cortex is involved in both face perception and color perception. It may be in this region that the brain processes visual data on the hue and luminosity of human skin. If you are a member of the International Society for Human Ethology, you can read my latest article: Hue and luminosity of human... Read More
Averaged face of blue-eyed male subjects (left). Averaged face of brown-eyed male subjects (right). Czech population. (Kleisner et al., 2010) If sexual selection of women diversified the eye color of early Europeans, the new colors should tend to be sex-linked, since the selection targeted women more than men. There is now evidence that blue eyes... Read More
Lighter skin color correlates with higher earnings among new immigrants to the U.S. This correlation holds up even if one controls for English language proficiency, education, occupation before migrating to the United States, and family background. It even holds up among immigrants of the same ethnicity, race, and country of origin. For some social scientists,... Read More
Time to die. This parasitic fungus begins as a spore on an ant’s body. It germinates, grows inside its host and eventually directs the ant’s brain to climb a plant and clamp its mandibles around a leaf or stem. The fungus then kills its host. It won’t be such a bad year. Stock markets will... Read More
Averaged female face (left) and averaged male face (right). The key facial regions for gender recognition, in terms of either response time or accuracy, seem to be where facial skin borders the lips or the eyes. The human face is a special visual object. We do not learn to recognize it. Instead, it is processed... Read More
Postgraduate students, School of Psychology, Cardiff University A recent study from Cardiff University (Wales) has found interesting sex differences in the way men and women evaluate facial skin color, specifically for faces of white, black, or mixed-race origin. The female participants evaluated White faces the least favorably out of all male facial photos. Conversely, the... Read More
Averaged faces of 22 women and 22 men (White American subjects with no makeup). Female faces are lighter-skinned than male faces, while showing more contrast between facial skin and lips/eyes (see research by Richard Russell). Les Presses de l’Université Laval has just published my book Femmes claires, hommes foncés. Les racines oubliées du colorisme. An... Read More
Les Presses de l’Université Laval viennent de publier mon oeuvre Femmes claires, hommes foncés. Les racines oubliées du colorisme. Dans un vieux manuscrit chrétien, on raconte l’histoire d’un homme qui s’est retiré dans un monastère avec son tout jeune fils. Ce dernier, devenu adolescent, a commencé à voir dans ses rêves des êtres d’apparence étrange.... Read More
Above - Artist's reconstruction of pre-Viking Age boat Below – Prehistoric rock paintings of boats (Scandinavia) Some writers argue that European skin became white to offset a decline in dietary vitamin D. Pre-agricultural diets, however, were rich in vitamin D only among coastal Europeans who consumed fatty fish. The ‘vitamin D hypothesis’ is often invoked... Read More
The human mind seems to use facial color to determine whether a person is male or female. A man has a relatively dark facial color that contrasts poorly with his lip and eye color. Conversely, a woman has a relatively light facial color that contrasts sharply with her lip and eye color (Russell, 2003; Russell,... Read More
Upper left: average of 22 Caucasian female faces Upper right: average of 22 Caucasian male faces Lower left: white pixels are where the female average is lighter than the male average Lower right: white pixels are where the male average is lighter than the female average To a large degree, we do not learn to... Read More
It’s well known that African Americans have low levels of vitamin D in their blood. In fact, this seems to be generally true for humans of tropical origin. In a study from Hawaii, vitamin D status was assessed in healthy, visibly tanned young adults who averaged 22.4 hours per week of unprotected sun exposure. Yet... Read More
Why are Europeans so pale-skinned? The most popular explanation is the vitamin-D hypothesis. Originally developed by Murray (1934) and Loomis (1967), it has been most recently presented by Chaplin and Jablonski (2009). It can be summarized as follows: 1. To absorb calcium and phosphorus from food passing through the gut, humans need vitamin D. This... Read More
In my previous posts, I argued that a homeostatic mechanism keeps the level of vitamin D in our bloodstream within a certain range. When UV-B light is always intense, as in the tropics, the level seems to be 50-75 nmol/L in young adults and progressively lower in older age groups. The more sunlight varies seasonally,... Read More
How can vitamin-D deficiency exist despite lengthy sun exposure? This apparent paradox was raised in my last post. The medical community now recommends bloodstream vitamin D levels of at least 75-150 nmol/L, yet these levels are not reached by many tanned, outdoorsy people. In a study from Hawaii, vitamin D status was assessed in 93... Read More
In the late 19th century, a major concern was the poor health of industrial populations, particularly in England but also in other Western countries. The cause? For the medical profession, it seemed to be lack of sunlight. In densely packed tenements under the pall of factory smoke, not enough sunlight was getting through to kill... Read More
In history, when was the first encounter between human groups that greatly differed in skin color? The first recorded contacts were probably between the copper-skinned Egyptians and the black-skinned Nubians, known as nehesy, who had pushed down the Nile valley from sub-Saharan Africa to the land of Kush, just south of the second cataract. How... Read More
Are ruddy faces attractive? Apparently they are—if we believe the findings of a study from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland (Stephen et al., 2009). The subjects were presented with photos of male or female faces, one at a time, and asked to give the faces an optimal healthy appearance. This was done by manipulating... Read More
It is well known that women feel attracted to certain visual, auditory, and olfactory characteristics of men. This attraction seems to be hormonally regulated, as suggested by psychosexual studies of women at different phases of the menstrual cycle. In general, women are more strongly attracted to male characteristics during the estrogen-dominant phase of their cycle... Read More
Is white skin an adaptation to the cereal diet that Europeans have been consuming for the past five to seven thousand years? When early Europeans switched from hunting and gathering to cereal agriculture, the new diet may have provided less vitamin D (i.e., from fatty fish), which the body needs to metabolize calcium and create... Read More
Differences in human skin color are commonly explained as an adaptive response to solar UV radiation and latitude. The further away from the equator you are, the weaker will be solar UV and the less your skin will need melanin to prevent sunburn and skin cancer. A variant of this explanation involves vitamin D, which... Read More
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