The Others, in black and white

By Razib Khan | September 29, 2012 1:18 am

New Scientist has a piece up, Europeans did not inherit pale skins from Neanderthals, based on a paper I blogged last month. One thing that I hadn’t though about in detail…how did anatomically modern humans of various shades perceive Neandertals of various shades? For example, it seems highly likely that there were swarthy Neandertals and pale Neandertals. Similarly, there were swarthy modern humans, and soon enough pale ones. Skin color is a very salient trait. Very different populations phylogenetically, Sub-Saharan Africans, Melanesians, and South Asians, have been defined as “black.” Did modern humans perceive Middle Eastern Neandertals, who may have been relatively dark, as much closer to humanlike status because of their similar complexion to anatomically modern Middle Eastern humans? Did they perceive European Neandertals, who may on average have been much lighter, as fundamentally different?

When doing physical reconstructions it seems to me that the gross morphology of Neandertals has been more emphasized. Their brow ridges, large prominent noses, and stocky body plans. But in this manner perhaps they’re like our imaginings of ancient Greek temples as alabaster white. In reality the temples of antiquity and many public buildings were festooned with color. Similarly, Neandertals came in all shades.

MORE ABOUT: Human Evolution

Comments (10)

  1. Eurologist

    All I can offer is that until classical times, or at least the Bronze Age, my intuition is that skin and hair color also served to differentiate and separate peoples. They knew who they were, what they did (for a living), where they came from, and quite evidently how they were different. I see that as an additional incentive/mechanism that prevented wide-spread exchange and simple gene and language diffusion/flow in past times.

  2. Dwight E. Howell

    Hair color and complexion should be determinable at least from some remains. We know that Hsn hair color varied a lot. Red heads are normally very fair. So are some brunettes.

    How people react to hair color and complexion is harder to predict. Some people are turned off by that which is different. Others obviously aren’t.

    The fact that laws against bestiality exist should be enough evidence that some people are willing to ignore major differences between themselves and their sex partners.

    On the other hand we have ethnic cleansing.

  3. Åse

    When I read this, I immediately thought of this paper by Kurzban, Cosmides and Tooby (it is a pdf well, as the suffix says). Skin color is salient and interesting, but as the paper kind of demonstrates, when skin color is no longer diagnostic of “the other”, it ceases to be dramatically important.

    My take on this (being blond and blue-eyed and Swedish, and with an advanced degree in social psychology) is that what is salient is whatever designates whether someone is with me, or not in my ingroup. In Sweden, where we all look the same, it tended to be accents. (When I taught prejudice in America, there were lots of people who kind of assumed that Swedes, with their homogeneity were not prejudiced – but we do find markers). Of course, I’m not the only one thinking this. Kubota, Banaji and Phelps discussed this in a Nature article this spring. (I’m linking in the Pleistosene scene blog here, but it has links to the paper).

    So, it is an interesting speculation, but, I think it may be more complex than so.

    Of course, there are other aspects of skin-color and triggering of judgment (I know you have written about this in the past here – how there is a preference for the light skin – especially in Women, even in other parts of the world).

    But, I figured I link these things in, since they relate to the topic of discussion. Is skin color enough? (I’m not sure). Are there other features that are more dominant? (Levine – I think – and it is saturday evening here and I have had a bit too much red wine, and I can’t find him through a quick google search – I might come back later with a link) did research in the mid-late 90’s on faces, where he used african american vs. white (caucasian – but like you I hate that damned term) faces, where he equated the luminance of the face, but kept (obviously) featural differences – to control for skin color. And, the weird thing was (he showed it to us at a talk he gave) you end up believeing that the african american face is darker than the white face – even with luminance the same – (I experienced it). So, there may be more attunement to featural differences, if that is necessary. Perhaps.

    (OK – so that was parenthesis hell – and would not run through a program, but oh well, wanted to get those links in)

  4. Åse

    It is Daniel Levin who did that work (damned, never remember). Here is a link to one paper he worked on, looking at mixed ethnicity.

  5. Kosmo

    So that’s a big win for convergent evolution. Neanderthals were pale with a significant percentage of red-heads. They were replaced by a population with uniformly dark hair and skin–who then later independently developed light skin and red hair through entirely different metabolic pathways.

    An interesting question to me is, what is it about Europe that so differentiates it from other high latitude locations? Why does red hair rise to significance twice in Europe, and nowhere else? That particular band of latitude is populated, to differing degrees, all the way around the world, and has been for tens of thousands of years.

  6. RafeK

    I am very curious about this, I like to imagine that paleolithic humans were similarly diverse in pigmentation and hair patterning as we are or more so but with the patterns far more regionally specific, in this valley all black hair and fair skin in the next one bronze skin and fair hair etc.

    However I have tended to be skeptical that was actually the case, what seemed the most likely to me is that morphology was quite variable but coloration was much less so.

    I don’t have the priors to really dig into the question, How does the much longer persistence of regional genetically distinct lineages weigh against the much smaller population density and the resulting lower levels of mutations generated? I lack the numeracy to attack that question.

    In lieu of deeper knowledge I look for analogies like anthropoid apes and l large carnivores with similar niches to humans. The majority of the similar species are essentially monotypic in coloring, all the anthropoids apes species are monotypic in coloring except the variation in skin color in chimps, , all canids except wolves, red foxes and artic foxes are monotypic, all bears species except black bears are monotypic though brown bears show wide variety of browns, all hyaena’s, all the big cats with exception of melanastic leopards and Jaguars and lion mane variation(which may be do to maturity and resources primarily)

    Looking specifically at wolves they are either a variation of agouti(gray or red and gray) with varying degree’s of white under carriage or they are white or black. white is specific to artic populations which is common adaption to the artic which humans don’t share and black is introgressed from dogs. So taking away dog introgression wolves are probably not more variable in color then say variation in blond and through brown hair in northern europeans.

    The only similar animals with similar levels of coloration variation seem to be domesticates so it seems to me this is likely a fairly new feature in humans.

    Which brings me to the limited set of priors I have about archaic humans and modern human pigmentation, I know an MCR1 variant has been found in at least one neanderthal, has it been demonstrated in others, are there multiple neanderthal MCR1 varients and can we really infer a strong likelihood of the that genotype being phenotypicaly expressed as red hair. In modern irish people you have to carry at least two variant copies to end up redheaded so many more people are carriers relative to the number of actual redheads MCR1 varients in Japan are not associated with redhair at all though everywhere tested so far varients are associated with lighter skin. How strongly can we infer that interacting with the rest of the neanderthal genome the known MCR1 variants in neanderthals would result in european ornorth east asian levels of palor?

    Denisova and 3 other neanderthals have been found to be dark haired and dark eyed( though the specimens appeared to be carriers for blue and not brown eye colors. Do we have any reason to be confident in predicting how common light coloration was in neanderthals or how it was distributed, going back to wolf analogy black wolves are born all the time in gray litters, it seems to be that neanderthal red hair(if MCR1 means red hair) could have easily been a feature common throughout their distribution but relatively uncommon like blond in some Melanesian population? If siberian denisova was dark skinned is there reason to infer that lightening like we seen in europeans and east asians was common in other human lineages.

    I would be surprised to find out neanderthal pigmentation followed a pattern similar to northern europeans, blond/red haired blue eyed northerners vs brunette dark skinned southerners. Both northern europeans and North east asians are very pale on world wide scale but latitudinally similar hunter forager populations from north america are not, and I have gestalt impression that the same is true in the siberian tribes that are less admixed with sinified or european populations. This plus the relatively recent selective sweeps on coloration in Caucasians and east asians have prompted me to consider them possible associated with agriculture that’s not a very strong inference some of the proposed dates clearly predate agriculture and I don’t what level of confidence to have in any of the dates but it would explain the reason we don’t see those characteristics in north america and possibly parts of siberia.

    Also I am curious if TPC1 associated with caucasian type brunets in opposition to black or is just associated with darker hair.

    Anyways long story short based on my limited priors, I think the relative amount of color variation in paleolithic humans still seems like a very unsettled question and I would tend to lean towards a conservative view of coloration.

    I know john hawks has hinted that there is interesting stuff going on neanderthal, denisovan and early human coloration but he hasn’t put out anymore then hints. Have you heard anything more then has been published on that Razib?

  7. Eurologist


    How do you know this? I am not the least convinced that general light hair and skin (not just the Scandinavian variant) only arose recently. Given the ease of mutations at these sites (because of strong vitamin D versus riboflavin etc. light dependency pressures) , it makes much more sense that people moving into Central and Western Europe from Eastern Europe and NW Asia already had or were developing such signatures 45,000 – 30,000 ya.

    Red hair may be a polymorphic thing than anything else.

  8. Tobus

    According to the 3 major components of European skin pigmentation developed in the last 20,000 years. So 45,000 years ago people entering Europe probably had skin tone similar to modern day southern Indians.

  9. Sandgroper

    “How people react to hair color and complexion is harder to predict. Some people are turned off by that which is different. Others obviously aren’t.”

    It is not clear how much this is culturally mediated, but the large increase in mixed marriage in America since the 1960s gives some indication.

    Bestiality is clearly deviant behaviour. Attraction to another human who differs principally only in colouring and culture is clearly not deviant behaviour, as indicated by both the increasing rate of mixed marriage, and by the results of the recent survey on this weblog.

    It’s bizarre to even put the two in the same frame.

  10. Zoopa

    “It is not clear how much this is culturally mediated, but the large increase in mixed marriage in America since the 1960s gives some indication.”…. ?

    While i would certainly not say that the increase is not ‘significant’ i would also not say that the increase in mixed marriage has been very large either.

    I mean interracial marriages are 8% of all marriages in the united states at the moment. Depending on your personal definition of interracial it can be lower than that. According to the USA government Hispanic is not a race(mestizos)and without counting hispanics the rate is around 3.9%

    This is all pretty dull anyway because marriage is not a 100% proof indicator of interracial breeding and well being.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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