DNA-researcher: It’s not 'woke' to portray prehistoric Europeans with dark skin. It’s evolution.
Ancient DNA analyses suggest that prehistoric Europeans looked different from modern Europeans today, but some people find that hard to accept.
Picture this: Almost 6,000 years ago, a girl walks along Lolland’s south coast and spits a piece of birch tar into the reeds. It didn’t taste great, but it helped to soothe her tooth ache.
Fast forward 6,000 years, Danish archaeologists working on the Fehmarnbelt project stumble across the piece and recognize it for what it is: an almost 6,000 year-old piece of chewing gum.
This ancient piece of gum is now on display at the Museum Lolland-Falster in southern Denmark among an amazing collection of Stone Age artefacts uncovered during the excavations. If you have not been, it is well worth a visit.
In 2019, my research team at the University of Copenhagen managed something quite remarkable: We succeeded in extracting DNA from the gum and used it to reconstruct the girl's entire genome — the first time anyone had sequenced an ancient human genome from anything other than skeletal remains.
As the gum had been found on Lolland, we affectionately nicknamed her 'Lola'.
Stone-age girl in social media ‘shitstorm’
The story of Lola and her chewing gum made headlines around the world when we published the genome in 2019 and then, suddenly, in the summer of 2023, Lola was back in the news, caught up in a media ‘shitstorm’.
The ‘shitstorm’ first gathered pace on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, and escalated to the point where the museum had to defend itself on national TV.
Even the Danish newspaper ‘Ekstrabladet’ felt they had to comment and gave their opinion in a passionate editorial.
So, what happened?
These things are difficult to reconstruct, but evidently some people who had seen the image of Lola thought that she looked “way too dark” and accused us—and the museum—of ‘blackwashing’ the past.
I suppose this episode says more about our own biases than anything else, and I would like to take this opportunity to explain why we portrayed Lola the way we did and what this tells us about the evolution of skin colour in this part of the world.
What we know about Lola
First a disclaimer, we do not know exactly how old Lola was when she spat that chewing gum into the water. But based on her genome and other DNA trapped in the gum, we learned a lot of other things about her and her world.
For example, we learned that she was a hunter-gatherer who lived off wild resources like fish, nuts, and wild game.
At the time, small farming communities started to appear in other parts of Europe, but from what we can tell Lola and her kin still lived — as her ancestors had done for thousands of years before her — as hunter-gatherers.
We also learned that she likely had dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes. But how do we know that?
The genetics of human skin pigmentation
Skin colour is a highly heritable and polygenic trait, meaning that it is influenced by multiple genes and their interactions with one another.
One of the most well-known genes associated with skin pigmentation is the melanocortin 1 receptor gene (MC1R), but there are dozens more that have been reported to be involved in the pigmentation process.
Most of these genes influence skin colour by regulating the production of melanin, a dark pigment that protects from the deleterious effects of UV radiation.
Basically, the more melanin you have in your skin, the darker it will be, and the more sun your skin can tolerate before you get sunburn.
Eye and hair colour are determined in a similar way, but the mechanisms that control the production of melanin in the eyes and hair are quite complex and independent processes.
That is why it is possible to end up with different combinations of traits, such as the dark hair and blue eyes that are often seen in Europeans today, or the light hair and brown eyes that are common for Solomon Islanders, for example.
How do we know what Lola looked like?
Because the genes involved in pigmentation have been well studied, it is possible to predict the skin, eye and hair colour of an individual based on their genotype with a certain probability, something that is routinely done in forensic investigations.
In practice, this works by checking which variants of a gene are present and what phenotype they are associated with. The more genes we can include in this analysis, the more confident we can be that our prediction is correct.
In Lola’s case, we studied 41 gene variants across her genome that have been associated with skin, hair and eye colour in humans, and concluded that she likely had this unusual (at least for today) combination of dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes.
A common look in prehistoric Europe
It is difficult to know exactly what people looked like 10,000 years ago. But based on ancient DNA studies, it appears that Lola’s ‘look’ was much more common in prehistoric Europe than it is today.
Thanks to advances in ancient DNA sequencing, we now have the genomes of dozens of Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic (i.e. the period between around 50,000 and 5,000 years before present in Europe) individuals from Western Europe.
And interestingly they all seem to lack the skin-lightening variants that are so common in Europeans today, indicating that they had dark skin.
This is true for ‘Cheddar Man’ who lived around 10,000 years ago in southern England, as well as dozens of other Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherer individuals from France, northern Italy, Spain, the Baltic, and other parts of Europe.
Like skin colour, eye colour is also a fairly complex trait, involving the interaction of many different genes.
Therefore, eye colour is fairly difficult to predict, but it looks like Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers from Western Europe often had blue eyes, just like Lola.
Overall, it looks like Lola’s phenotype—the combination of dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes—was much more common in prehistoric Europe than it is today.
How Europeans got their lighter skin
So, why did people in prehistoric Europe look so different from northern Europeans today?
The answer to this question lies in a complex interplay between our genes, our changing diets, population movements, and the environment.
It has been theorised for some time that lighter skin emerged as an adaptive trait to light poor environments as it allows you to absorb sunlight more effectively, which is essential for the production of vitamin D.
However, it was unclear when this happened.
Early studies suggested that we first may have evolved lighter skin as our ancestors moved out of Africa and into Europe c. 50,000 years ago, but we now believe that this happened much later in European prehistory.
In fact, there is evidence that lighter skin only evolved within the last 5,000 years or so, as a result of genetic admixture from Neolithic farming populations (who carried the skin-lightening variant) and strong selection favouring lighter skin.
Our changing diet also played a part
In addition, it looks like our changing diets also played a part.
During most of European prehistory people relied on wild resources like nuts, game, and fish that are all rich in vitamin D, which is essential to our health.
That changed dramatically during the Neolithic when people started to rely on a farmer’s diet that was rich in carbohydrates, but poor in vitamin D.
Interestingly, this is exactly the period when we see lighter skin tones evolve in western Europe and we think that the lack of vitamin D in the diet may have increased the selection pressures favouring lighter skin.
All in all, there is solid evidence to suggest that lighter skin tones only evolved in Europe within the last 5,000 years or so, and that people who lived in Europe before then typically had darker skin.
It is not that surprising, then, that Lola had darker skin. It simply reflects the fact that she lived at a time when Europeans had not yet evolved their lighter skin.
- Hannes Schroeder's profile (University of Copenhagen)
- 'A 5700 year-old human genome and oral microbiome from chewed birch pitch', Nature Communications (2019), DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-13549-9
- 'The evolution of human skin coloration', Journal of Human Evolution (2000), DOI: 10.1006/jhev.2000.0403
- 'Direct evidence for positive selection of skin, hair, and eye pigmentation in Europeans during the last 5,000 y', PNAS (2014), DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1316513111
- 'The evolution of skin pigmentation-associated variation in West Eurasia', PNAS (2020), DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2009227118
- 'The evolution of human skin pigmentation: A changing medley of vitamins, genetic variability, and UV radiation during human expansion', American Journal of Biological Anthropology (2023), DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.24564