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How did humans get different colored eyes?

How did humans get different colored eyes?

The color of the human eye is one of the most striking and beautiful features of human appearance. But where do these captivating hues come from? The answer lies in the biology and genetics behind eye color.

The Basics of Eye Color

Human eye color originates from the amount and type of melanin pigment in the iris. Melanin is produced by cells called melanocytes. The more melanin present in the iris, the darker the eye color. The less melanin, the lighter the eyes.

There are two main types of melanin: eumelanin and pheomelanin. Eumelanin produces shades of brown and black. Pheomelanin produces shades of red and yellow. Most eyes have a combination of both eumelanin and pheomelanin, resulting in intermediate colors like amber, hazel, and green.

Common Eye Colors

Here are some of the most common eye colors and their melanin content:

  • Brown eyes – High amounts of eumelanin
  • Amber eyes – Moderate amounts of eumelanin
  • Hazel eyes – Moderate amounts of eumelanin and pheomelanin
  • Green eyes – Low to moderate amounts of eumelanin, higher levels of pheomelanin
  • Blue eyes – Very low levels of melanin
  • Gray eyes – Very low levels of melanin

Genetics of Eye Color

The specific eye color of an individual is inherited through genetics. The gene primarily responsible for eye color is the OCA2 (oculocutaneous albinism II) gene located on chromosome 15. Different variations or alleles of this gene determine the amount of melanin produced.

The main alleles related to eye color are:

  • HERC2 – Associated with blue eyes
  • OCA2 – Associated with brown/amber eyes
  • Additional modifying genes – Alter melanin content to produce intermediate colors

These alleles are passed down to offspring in combinations that result in varying eye colors. The inheritance patterns are complex since multiple genes influence melanin production. Generally, darker eye colors like brown are dominant over lighter colors like blue. But lighter traits can still be inherited and expressed if both parents carry the allele for light color.

Polygenic Traits

Eye color is considered a polygenic trait since multiple genes influence the outcome. The number of active copies of each allele determines the shade:

Gene Combination Resulting Eye Color
High OCA2, low HERC2 Brown
Moderate OCA2, low HERC2 Hazel or Amber
Low OCA2, low HERC2 Blue

These combinations demonstrate the range of possible eye colors based on genetic inheritance from both parents.

Evolution of Eye Color Variation

So when and why did different eye colors emerge in human populations? To understand this, we must look back to early human origins and migration patterns.

Scientists believe eye color variation began at the time of the first modern humans around 200,000 years ago in Africa. Early humans likely had uniformly brown eyes due to high melanin content adapted to solar intensity.

As populations migrated north into Europe about 40,000 years ago, natural selection favored lighter eye colors. Lower melanin allowed more sunlight to be absorbed in northern climates with less intense sunlight. Lighter eyes may have also conferred social advantages in forming tribes and detecting emotions.

The variation in eye color continued to expand as groups spread across the globe and intermixed. The HERC2 allele for blue eyes first appeared about 10,000 years ago, likely around the Black Sea region. It became prevalent in northern Europe and remains most common among people of European ancestry.

Eye Color Frequencies

Here are approximate global frequencies for different eye colors:

Eye Color Global Frequency
Brown 79%
Blue 8%
Amber/Hazel 5%
Green 2%
Gray 1%

Brown remains the most common worldwide, but lighter eye colors now account for up to one-fifth of the global population.

Other Factors Affecting Eye Color

Genetics are not the only factor influencing eye color. Other elements can subtly alter melanin content and change the appearance of eye color.

Lighting Conditions

The perceived color of the eyes can shift in different lighting. Melanin levels remain constant, but more reflected light makes eyes look lighter. Dim conditions dilate the pupils and make eyes seem darker.


Melanin and lipid content in the stroma of the iris can change over time. Newborns often have lighter blue/gray eyes that darken gradually. Elderly people may experience fading or spotting that makes their iris appear lighter.

Injury and Disease

Trauma, inflammation, and conditions like pigmentary glaucoma can affect melanin production and deposition. This leads to changes in shade, patchiness, or multicolored areas in the iris.


In summary, the beautiful spectrum of human eye color originated from evolutionary selection and genetic inheritance. The melanin content and type in the iris determine the hue of brown, blue, green, and intermediates. Random variations in eye color allowed humans to adapt as they spread into new environments and formed diverse societies. The uniqueness of each individual’s eye color results from this ancient history of migration, selection, and blending of our ancestors’ genetic codes.