[Paleopsych] ABC (au): Ancient Germans weren't so fair, 2004.7.16
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Ancient Germans weren't so fair, 2004.7.16
[I found this when looking for articles on red hair for the meme on The
Maureen Dowd Theory of Western Civilization I sent yesterday. I'm not expert
enough to comment on this, but the Maureen Dowd theory might suggest that
light hair and eyes, in the proportions of, say, 1900, could be recent
Anna Salleh in Brisbane
Friday, 16 July 2004
Researchers may be able to make more accurate reconstructions of what
ancient humans looked like with the first ever use of ancient DNA to
determine hair and skin colour from skeletal remains.
The research was presented today at an international ancient DNA
conference in Brisbane, Australia, by German anthropologist, Dr Diane
Schmidt of the University of Göttingen.
She said her research may also help to identify modern day murderers
and their victims.
"Three thousand years ago, nobody was doing painting and there was no
photography. We do not know what people looked like," Schmidt told ABC
She said most images in museums and books were derived from
comparisons with living people from the same regions.
"For example, when we make a reconstruction of people from Africa we
think that they had dark skin or dark hair," she said. "But there's no
real scientific information. It's just a guess. It's mostly
She said this had meant, for example, that the reconstruction of
Neanderthals had changed over time.
"In the 1920s, the Neanderthals were reconstructed as wild people with
dark hair and dumb, not really clever," she said. "Today, with the
same fossil record, with the same bones and no other information -
just a change in ideology - you see reconstructions of people with
blue eyes and quite light skin colour, looking intelligent and using
"Most of the reconstructions you see in museums are a thing of the
imagination of the reconstructor. Our goal is to make this
reconstruction less subjective and give them an objective basis with
Genetic markers for hair colour
In research for her recently completed PhD, Schmidt built on research
from the fields of dermatology and skin cancer that have found genetic
markers for traits such as skin and hair colour in modern humans.
In particular, Schmidt relied on the fact that different mutations
(known as single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs) in the
melanocortin receptor 1 gene are responsible for skin and hair colour.
DNA analysis showed this skull belonged to someone with red hair
(Image: Sussane Hummel)
"There is a set of SNPs that tells you that a person was a redhead and
a different set of markers tell you they were fair skinned."
She extracted DNA from ancient human bones as old as 3000 years old
from three different locations in Germany and looked for these SNPs.
Her findings suggest that red hair and fair skin was very uncommon
among ancient Germans.
Out of a total of 26 people analysed, Schmidt found only one person
with red hair and fair skin, a man from the Middle Ages. All the other
people had more UV-tolerant skin that tans easily.
She said she was excited when she "coloured in" the faces that once
covered the skulls, and had even developed "a kind of a personal
relationship" with one of them.
"It's not so anonymous," she said. "I think this is the reason why
people in museums can do reconstruction because our ancestors are not
so anonymous any more; they have a face you can look into."
Unfortunately the genetic markers Schmidt used could not distinguish
which of the ancient humans had blond versus black hair, and she could
not determine eye colour.
But, she said she was confident that this will be possible in a few
Schmidt said that such research could also be used to help build up
identikit pictures to help identify skeletons or criminals.
The research has been submitted for publication.
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