The evolution of human skin coloration

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Abstract

Skin color is one of the most conspicuous ways in which humans vary and has been widely used to define human races. Here we present new evidence indicating that variations in skin color are adaptive, and are related to the regulation of ultraviolet (UV) radiation penetration in the integument and its direct and indirect effects on fitness. Using remotely sensed data on UV radiation levels, hypotheses concerning the distribution of the skin colors of indigenous peoples relative to UV levels were tested quantitatively in this study for the first time. The major results of this study are: (1) skin reflectance is strongly correlated with absolute latitude and UV radiation levels. The highest correlation between skin reflectance and UV levels was observed at 545 nm, near the absorption maximum for oxyhemoglobin, suggesting that the main role of melanin pigmentation in humans is regulation of the effects of UV radiation on the contents of cutaneous blood vessels located in the dermis. (2) Predicted skin reflectances deviated little from observed values. (3) In all populations for which skin reflectance data were available for males and females, females were found to be lighter skinned than males. (4) The clinal gradation of skin coloration observed among indigenous peoples is correlated with UV radiation levels and represents a compromise solution to the conflicting physiological requirements of photoprotection and vitamin D synthesis. The earliest members of the hominid lineage probably had a mostly unpigmented or lightly pigmented integument covered with dark black hair, similar to that of the modern chimpanzee. The evolution of a naked, darkly pigmented integument occurred early in the evolution of the genus Homo. A dark epidermis protected sweat glands from UV-induced injury, thus insuring the integrity of somatic thermoregulation. Of greater significance to individual reproductive success was that highly melanized skin protected against UV-induced photolysis of folate (Branda and Eaton, 1978, Science 201, 625-626; Jablonski, 1992, Proc. Australas. Soc. Hum. Biol. 5, 455-462, 1999, Med. Hypotheses 52, 581-582), a metabolite essential for normal development of the embryonic neural tube (Bower and Stanley, 1989, The Medical Journal of Australia 150, 613-619; Medical Research Council Vitamin Research Group, 1991, The Lancet 338, 31-37) and spermatogenesis (Cosentino et al., 1990, Proc. Natn. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 87, 1431-1435; Mathur et al., 1977, Fertility Sterility 28, 1356-1360). As hominids migrated outside of the tropics, varying degrees of depigmentation evolved in order to permit UVB-induced synthesis of previtamin D3. The lighter color of female skin may be required to permit synthesis of the relatively higher amounts of vitamin D3 necessary during pregnancy and lactation. Skin coloration in humans is adaptive and labile. Skin pigmentation levels have changed more than once in human evolution. Because of this, skin coloration is of no value in determining phylogenetic relationships among modern human groups.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number90403
Pages (from-to)57-106
Number of pages50
JournalJournal of Human Evolution
Volume39
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 1 2000

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All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology

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