Earth is riddled with no greater mysteries than the origins of human life and now, scientists believe that European hunters evolved far differently than what was previously thought. It is thanks to new information obtained from the collection of two Mesolithic male skeletons in 2006, from León, Spain, that has led them to this conclusion. And it is these ancestors that can be studied in order to make new discoveries that can replace older ideas.
When a couple of hikers originally discovered the skeletal remains, it was believed they had stumbled upon a couple of recent murder victims. But genetic analysis and research of their DNA proved that they had lived roughly 7,000 years ago, and were likely buried in Paleolithic burial sites with no signs of trauma or bodily harm. What made this discovery truly interesting was the fact that the performed analysis showed these skeletons had dark skin and blue eyes. Coupled with the realization that these skeletons closely resembled northern European hunters, scientists realized the generally accepted notion that northern European hunters had evolved with light skin 40,000 years ago was wrong.
Where did this idea that humans had evolved light skin 40,000 years ago come from, anyway?
It is believed that early southern European hunters had dark skin as an evolutionary trait, a result from living under the sweltering African sun. This belief is still held true today, given the fact that many natives who live near the equator have darker skin. Scientists believed that light skin evolved as a result of people living in northern climates where having such skin tones would help them synthesize vitamin D from the sun’s rays more efficiently. The discovery that northern European hunters still had dark skin 7,000 years ago means that evolution happened far differently from what was initially thought.
The out-of-Africa hypothesis states that modern-day humanity first evolved from Africa and spread globally, starting around 50,000 years ago. While these new findings don’t necessarily destroy this idea, it does raise the question of whether it will have to be restructured or, at the very least, reconsidered. The genetic analysis also showed that one of the skeletons (the other one had been degraded from resting in water for millennia) had the mutation for blue eyes, which aligns with what northern European hunters of that time period were believed to look like. This discovery also helps explain why Scandinavian babies commonly have blue eyes, showing that it is not because of a delayed agricultural revolution like initially believed.
If light skin did not evolve as early as humanity initially thought because of a need to acquire vitamin D from the sun, then the next most likely cause is because of a change in dietary conditions. When the Neolithic revolution occurred, Europeans changed from being “food gatherers” to “food producers.” When this revolutionary shift happened, farmers may have evolved light skin at this point to make up for the lack of vitamin D in their diets, and to synthesize the nutrient from the sun more easily.
The delay in learning this information was because genetic analysis was not advanced enough to obtain it when the skeletons were discovered back in 2006. Now that it is, Nature Journal was able to detail these new findings about the evolution of European hunters, and how they may have evolved far differently than what scientists originally thought.
By Jonathan Holowka