Sunday, June 14, 2020

Red Hair and Freckles - The Product of Racial Melting Pots?

I thought I'd do another little follow up to a post I did last year. Where I speculated that perhaps red hair, far from having its origins in some long gone tribe or mutation, is actually a by-product of very diverse peoples mixing.

That original article can be found here;

To give a brief overview I can explain the general theory like this. Between the polar regions of the earth and the equator you have a natural spectrum of skin and hair tone. Caused by the relative sunlight people receive. From very light (i.e. blond/white) at the North Pole to very dark at the equator.

Normally, when there's only limited human travel (as there would've been in earlier times) this spectrum remains pretty steady and boring. As people tend to settle down and have children with people near to where they themselves are on this spectrum. However, once long distance travel begins, particularly sea travel, then you start getting people who look very different from each other intermarrying. Resulting in more chaotic, random colouring of the offspring. Hence red hair, freckles and hazel eyes.

To illustrate things a little better I'll split the world into regions;

(click to enlarge)

More often than not, due to limitations of travel, someone from Region A would only have offspring with someone from Region A or Region B. Meaning the offspring would be blond, light-skinned and blue-eyed, or perhaps ever so slightly darker than that (i.e. slightly further down the scale). The same with all the other regions, who only interact with the regions next door to themselves.

However, once you have Region A people meeting Region E people then all hell breaks loose, and strange variations pop up due to the sheer range of genes the offspring may inherit. Now sure, 9 out of 10 offspring may look something like Region C people, but 1 in 10 may have the luminosity of blond hair, but mixed with a darker tone not normally seen in standard blondes (red hair). Or eyes that are some strange mixture of bright blue and dark brown (hazel eyes). And so on and so forth.

Anyway, with that little description out the way I'll move on to the few things I wanted to add to the original article.

The Russia and Ireland Trade Route Melting Pots

(A red hair map, showing its
approximate frequency across Europe)

The above map shows the classic and familiar distribution of redheads across Europe. With the highest proportion generally appearing in Ireland and Scotland. There's also that little red dot in Russia, which has always been something of a fascination to me and others interested in this topic.

This theory that red hair is the product of diverse peoples mixing fits this map quite nicely.

Ireland and Scotland are perfectly positioned on the western coast of Europe, between the Mediterranean and Scandinavia. Meaning that thanks to sea travel up and down the Atlantic coast Irish and Scots may have a greater proportion of ancestors from these very different regions. A very large melting pot so to speak.

Likewise with Russia. Where trade routes would've stretched between the Middle East and Scandinavia via both land and inland sea routes. Namely around the Caspian and Black Seas.

So you could speculate that these little melting pots of trade and travel produced heightened numbers of redheads.

The Pale Skin Illusion

Another thing I want to mention in this article is the supposed unique paleness of redheads. The general opinion is that red-haired people are much more pale than other white people. Even more so than blonds. In fact, the skin is often described as translucent by observers.

However, I would proffer that redheads are no more pale than other white people and that this perceived extra paleness is simply an illusion. Created by the contrast of the red hair and freckles against the whiteness of the skin. For example, my freckly skin tans. However, the tanned skin still looks very white sat next to the much darker brown freckles. So it's like an optical effect.

I would speculate that in general redheads are no more pale than the average blond person.

Something which increases my confidence in this statement is a discussion I had with my friend. I brought up this little theory and he was adamantly against it.
"No, red-haired people are much paler, it's obvious! You can tell just from looking!"
The phrase "ginger skin" was even used, which in turn then led to a discussion about red-haired celebrities. The question being could you still tell that a person was ginger if they dyed their hair blond and you'd only ever known them as that colour. Sneakily I threw a few people into the conversation that were famous for being redheads, but that were in actual fact non-redheads - Tori Amos, Christina Hendricks, Florence Welch, to name a few. (Finally all that knowledge I'd acquired about red hair had a use).

Anyway, he was insistent that all these people, including the unbeknownst to him non-redheads, were so "ginger looking" that even with hair of another colour their overwhelming gingerness would shine forth. So he was quite disbelieving when I pointed out that some weren't even redheads to begin with.

Of course, this is just anecdotal evidence, but it does lend weight to the notion that the skin tone of red-haired people isn't especially different, and that any reasonably pale person can "look" ginger with the addition of red hair or freckles.

Sexual Licentiousness

A final thing I'd like to mention - and again, this is total speculation here ..but interesting speculation nonetheless - is the perceived association between red hair and sexual licentiousness. This is largely no doubt a product of the vividness of the red colouring - as with sexually alluring red lips for example. However, could this historic and seemingly ingrained association also be a product of the observation that red hair is a product of race mixing?

Something that would be seen as taboo in otherwise homogeneous tribal groups.

If red hair popped up in melting pot societies then this visible otherness could be perceived as an indicator of mixing with outsiders. So perhaps it would've been viewed as evidence that people had had sex beyond their immediate tribal groupings. Viewed through this lens of racial homogeneity it would be seen as an impurity, which of course is how freckles and red hair are often viewed today.

And I'll leave it there for now :)


  1. Your theory is interesting, but its completely disproven by the genetic basis for red hair. Its caused by one of three mutations to the gene associated with the Melacortin 1 receptor. The alleles responsible for red hair are not fully recessive, but having two copies greatly increases your chances of having red hair.

    So red hair would become less common with more mixing as the chances of having two copies of the gene become smaller. Which is likely why there are more redheads in more isolated regions like Ireland and Wales. This is also likely why red hair is often associated historically with royalty and nobility, and also with ashkenazi jews, since they would be more genetically isolated from the greater european population and if the genes for red hair were already present or introduced at some point, over time they would be more likely to be expressed as a visible phenotype if the group continued to be endogamous.

    One of the mutations responsible for red hair in 70000 years old, the other two are around 30000 years old and neanderthals seemed to carry yet another variant not found in modern humans today, so I think its a safe bet that its a fairly common mutation to occur and proliferate in northern eurasia where sunlight is limited.

    This is a very interesting blog, one of my favourites to read. Please keep up the good work.

    1. Also something i would like to mention in regards to the section on pale skin. The nature of the gene mutation that causes red hair is that it makes the body unable to produce dark eumelanin and only allows for the production of reddish brown pheomelanin. So in most ethnic groups redheads will appear to be paler, but also slighty slightly more reddish brown. In northern europe where light skin tones are the norm redheads will not necessarily be paler than the average person, but will have a more reddish tone to their skin. Redeads with significant african admixture will often be darker than redheads with more european ancestry but both will be paler and reddish when compared to people of similar ancestry.

      As for your assertion that most people can "look ginger" with the addition of red hair and freckles, thats just completely ridiculous. In most cases its very easy to distinguish a natural redhead from someone with red dyed hair, just at a glance, because the complete lack of eumelanin results in a unique and recognizable skin tone

    2. Thanks for your comments. They're very much appreciated. My apologies for not replying to the first one.

      As for the theory, I'm simply presenting it as an interesting alternative. Obviously it's unlikely that I'll be right and everyone else wrong, so I'm quite out on a limb with it. However, it's always good to have alternative perspectives, and occasionally from time to time a David may take down a Goliath by challenging consensus :)

      With that caveat out the way though I'll try to defend the theory.

      Firstly I don't think the science surrounding red hair is as settled or as simple as is generally thought. Hair colour seems to be a combination of many factors, and it's not always the case that 'this gene' = 'that hair colour'.

      This study is quite interesting. I can't pretend to fully understand the science in it, but it illustrates the complexity.

      For example, there are "cases of red hair with only one or no [MC1R] variants".

      The article also states that "most individuals with two MC1R variants have blonde or light brown hair."

      My speculation would be that the genetic factors that cause blonde hair and blue eyes in homogeneous blonde populations may cause more exotic colours (red hair, green eyes, etc) when mixed up in broader, more diverse gene pools.

      As for the idea that anyone can "look ginger". My point is that ginger people (contrary to popular opinion) aren't paler, i.e. they aren't a level of paleness beyond the range of pale we see in other white people, especially fair-haired blondes. So the notion that redheads are "especially pale" is a myth, and they're not beyond blond people on the dark-to-light spectrum. They're within the colour range scale.

      I mentioned Tori Amos in the article. I genuinely assumed she was a natural redhead until I found out otherwise. Perhaps simply because she is so pale looking. In fact, I remember being a little disappointed to discover she wasn't natural as I had to remove her from my list of famous redheads lol. I assumed she was a classic ginger, but I was wrong. My eyes deceived me.

      I imagine the idea that redheads are paler is simply an assumption that's never been challenged. Everyone assumes it's 'self-evidently' true, until someone pops up and asks "Is it?".

      I would guess this perception is largely a result of

      a) people naturally seeing redheads as sickly-looking or freakish, owning to their unusual/outlier appearance

      and b) the illusion created by the contrast between the red hair and the lighter skin, and also the freckles and lighter skin. Making the skin 'appear' lighter than it is in reality.

      Again, it's highly unlikely I'll be proved correct though given I'm the only person that seems to be stating this idea.