What did the first modern humans in Europe look like? The question comes up in a BBC2 series The Incredible Human Journey, which shows the reconstructed head of a man who lived in the Carpathian Mountains some 35,000 years ago. With its brown skin and broad nose, this ‘First European’ looks, well, very un-European.
The online article is followed by bitter comments. One observes: “It seems to me that this result was not modelled on actual human remains. But rather on the image the Ministry of Truth has on what a modern European OUGHT to look like.”
And my comment? First of all, Europeans look European because they have physical traits that are rare or absent in other human populations. Since these traits are specific to Europe, they probably developed there. And they would have done so only after the arrival of modern humans 40,000-35,000 years ago. Therefore, a European living 35,000 years ago should have looked a lot less European than the ones around today.
So much for the theory. What about the facts? I should first point out that the reconstructed head is based not only on the Carpathian cranium but also on other remains from the same period and even on non-skeletal data. Obviously, skeletal remains don’t preserve skin color. We know that early modern Europeans were darker-skinned because the alleles for white skin arose much later in time—about 11,000 years ago at the SLC45A2 (AIM1) gene and 12,000–3,000 years ago at the SLC24A5 gene (Norton & Hammer, 2007; Soejima et al., 2005). As a Science journalist observed: “the implication is that our European ancestors were brown-skinned for tens of thousands of years” (Gibbons, 2007).
Does this seem counter-intuitive? How could Europeans have been brown for so long and so far north? Isn’t white skin an adaptation to northern latitudes and low levels of UV light? Well, human skin is brown among indigenous northern Asians and Amerindians who live just as far north with the same UV at ground level. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the extreme depigmentation of Europeans is probably due to sexual selection, as evidenced by other unique color traits, i.e., diversification of eye and hair color (Frost, 2006; Frost, 2008).
Early modern Europeans probably had broad noses too. We see this not only in the Carpathian cranium but also in other cranial remains from the same time period. We see this especially in a pair of skeletons from Grimaldi, northern Italy. The skeletons were initially dated to the early occupation of Europe by modern humans, c. 30,000 BP. Associated artifacts have since been radiocarbon dated to 14,000-19,000 BP but may come from later occupation layers (Bisson et al., 1996).
The Grimaldi skulls don’t look European. The face is wide but not high, the nose broad and flat, the upper jaw forward-projecting, and the chin weakly developed. The well-preserved dentition is not at all European. Among currently living populations, the ones who most closely resemble the Grimaldi humans seem to be the Khoisan peoples of southern Africa. The French physical anthropologists Boule and Vallois (1957, pp. 290-291) describe these early Europeans as having an almost African phenotype:
Comparisons which we have been able to make with the material at our disposal, in particular with the skeleton of the Hottentot Venus [a Khoisan individual], have led us to note, for instance, the same dolichocephalic character, the same prognathism, the same flattening of the nose, the same development of the breadth of the face, the same form of jaw, and the same great size of teeth. The only differences are to be found in the stature and perhaps in the height of the skull.
We know less about the soft-tissue characteristics. Alongside the skeletons were a number of female statuettes with big breasts, protruding bellies, full hips, and large buttocks. On the statuettes, the hair seems to be short and matted (Boule & Vallois, 1957, p. 311).
When did this original phenotype disappear? The data increasingly suggest that Europeans assumed their present-day appearance relatively late and over a relatively short time span. This transformation essentially took place during the last ice age (25,000 – 10,000 BP), with most of the changes probably occurring during the period after the glacial maximum (15,000 – 10,000 BP). As I’ve argued elsewhere, the cause was probably an intensification of sexual selection of women, i.e., too many women had to compete for too few men. On the one hand, male mortality increased in relation to female mortality because men had to cover much longer hunting distances. On the other, polygyny decreased because women depended much more on men for food provisioning (Frost, 2006; Frost, 2008).
This transformation took place on a vast expanse of steppe-tundra—today the plains of northern and eastern Europe—where highly mobile herds of reindeer and other herbivores were almost the sole food source for humans. The new phenotype must have then spread outward, via gene flow. Interestingly, the old phenotype may have persisted in some peripheral populations, perhaps into late prehistory and even after. As Boule and Vallois (1957, pp. pp. 291-292) note:
‘In Brittany, as well as in Switzerland and in the north of Italy, there lived in the Polished Stone period, in the Bronze Age and during the early Iron Age, a certain number of individuals who differed in certain characters from their contemporaries’, in particular in the dolichocephalic character of their skull, in possessing a prognathism that was sometimes extreme, and a large grooved nose. This is a matter of partial atavism which in certain cases, as in the Neolithic Breton skull from Conguel, may attain to complete atavism. Two Neolithic individuals from Chamblandes in Switzerland are Negroid not only as regards their skulls but also in the proportions of their limbs. Several Ligurian and Lombard tombs of the Metal Ages have also yielded evidences of a Negroid element.
Since the publication of Verneau’s memoir, discoveries of other Negroid skeletons in Neolithic levels in Illyria and the Balkans have been announced. The prehistoric statues, dating from the Copper Age, from Sultan Selo in Bulgaria are also thought to portray Negroids. In 1928 René Bailly found in one of the caverns of Moniat, near Dinant in Belgium, a human skeleton of whose age it is difficult to be certain, but which seems definitely prehistoric. It is remarkable for its Negroid characters, which give it a resemblance to the skeletons from both Grimaldi and Asselar.
It is not only in prehistoric times that the Grimaldi race seems to have made its influence felt. Verneau has been able to see, now in modern skulls and now in living subjects, in the Italian areas of Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia, Tuscany, and the Rhone Valley, numerous characters of the old fossil race.
A similar observation is made by Fleure (1945):
In a few places in Sweden, Britain, and France people have been noticed who show characteristics of the skull and face that remind one of late-Paleolithic man: these people are usually darker, in hair and eyes, than their neighbors; sometimes they even have swarthy skins. Although this fact may not have great weight in argument, it does hint that there has been depigmentation in this region. The many stories of golden hair and blue eyes suggest that sexual selection may have helped the change.
An ancient Norse poem, the Rigsthula, describes how the god Rig created a class of thralls who were black-haired, swarthy, and flat-nosed (Jonassen, 1951). This theme comes up elsewhere in Old Norse literature (Karras, 1988). Thus, even in northern Europe, and as late as the proto-historic period, some Europeans may have retained a dark-skinned and broad-nosed phenotype. The ‘First European’ seems to have stayed around for a long time …
Bisson, M.S., Tisnerat, N., & White, R. (1996). Radiocarbon dates from the Upper Paleolithic of the Barma Grande. Current Anthropology, 37, 156–162.
Boule, M. & Vallois, H.V. (1957). Fossil Men. New York: Dryden Press.
Fleure, H.J. (1945). The distribution of types of skin color, Geographical Review, 35, 580-595.
Frost, P. (2008). Sexual selection and human geographic variation, Special Issue: Proceedings of the 2nd Annual Meeting of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 2(4), pp. 169-191.
Frost, P. (2006). European hair and eye color – A case of frequency-dependent sexual selection? Evolution and Human Behavior, 27, 85-103.
Gibbons, A. (2007). American Association Of Physical Anthropologists Meeting: European Skin Turned Pale Only Recently, Gene Suggests. Science 20 April 2007:Vol. 316. no. 5823, p. 364 DOI: 10.1126/science.316.5823.364a http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/summary/316/5823/364a
Jonassen, C.T. (1951). Some historical and theoretical bases of racism in northwestern Europe, Social Forces, 30, 155-161.
Karras, R.M. (1988). Slavery and Society in Medieval Scandinavia. New Haven.
Norton, H.L. & Hammer, M.F. (2007). Sequence variation in the pigmentation candidate gene SLC24A5 and evidence for independent evolution of light skin in European and East Asian populations. Program of the 77th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, p. 179.
Soejima, M., Tachida, H., Ishida, T., Sano, A., & Koda, Y. (2005). Evidence for recent positive selection at the human AIM1 locus in a European population. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 23, 179-188.