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How did white skin evolve?

The evolution of white skin has long been a fascinating topic for anthropologists and geneticists. In this article, we will explore the evolutionary history of white skin, looking at the evolutionary pressures that led to its development and its distribution across human populations.

What is white skin?

White skin is characterized by a pale pink or ivory complexion with little melanin pigmentation. Melanin is a pigment that gives skin, hair, and eyes their color. It protects the skin from ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Darker skin has higher levels of melanin, while fair and pale skin has less melanin.

The technical term for white skin is “depigmentation.” It is thought to have evolved as an adaptation to lower UV radiation levels in northern latitudes. This was favored by natural selection as it allowed more UV rays to penetrate the skin and produce vitamin D.

When did white skin evolve?

Researchers estimate that depigmented skin evolved at some point after modern humans left Africa around 70,000 years ago. However, there is debate around exact dates and evolutionary drivers.

One theory proposes that depigmented skin evolved as modern humans migrated into Eurasia around 40,000 years ago. The reduced UV levels in these northern latitudes created evolutionary pressure for paler skin to allow more UV penetration and vitamin D production.

Another theory suggests depigmented skin evolved more recently, perhaps in the last 20,000 years. According to this model, white skin emerged after the Last Glacial Maximum when food sources became more scarce. As diets shifted, pale skin allowed for more efficient vitamin D synthesis from reduced sun exposure.

Evolutionary drivers of white skin

There were several key evolutionary pressures that drove the emergence of white skin:

  • UV radiation: As humans migrated north out of Africa into areas of lower UV intensity, pale skin allowed for more UV penetration for vitamin D synthesis.
  • Climate: Colder and darker environments in northern latitudes favored lighter skin to absorb more UV radiation.
  • Diet: Changes in diet and nutrition may have created evolutionary pressure for more efficient vitamin D production in pale skin.
  • Sexual selection: Lighter skin may have become preferred through mate selection, contributing to its spread in northern populations.

Vitamin D and white skin

The main driver behind the evolution of white skin appears to be vitamin D synthesis. Melanin pigments in darker skin can inhibit UV penetration and vitamin D production. Vitamin D has important roles in bone growth, immune function, and metabolism.

In low UV northern latitudes, pale skin allows more UV light to trigger vitamin D synthesis. Even at high latitudes, enough UV radiation penetrates pale skin to produce beneficial levels of vitamin D.

This evolutionary adaptation would have been highly favorable for survival and reproduction. Humans with depleted vitamin D suffer from bone deformities like rickets.

Distribution of white skin

Today, populations with pale white skin are concentrated in northern parts of Europe, Russia, and the Circum-polar region. However, depigmented skin is also found at lower frequencies across other parts of Eurasia and the Americas.

This distribution reflects the migration patterns of humans out of Africa. As humans spread northward, populations gradually acquired adaptations for lighter skin through natural selection.

Interestingly, East Asians also show some depigmentation compared to other global populations. However, their skin tone is still considerably darker than northern European populations.

Region Population Skin Tone
Northern Europe Ethnic Scandinavians, British Isles Very pale white
Southern Europe French, German, Northern Italian Pale white
Eastern Europe/West Asia Slavic peoples, Sámi people Light moderate brown
East Asia Han Chinese, Japanese, Korean Light to moderate yellow-brown

Genetics of white skin

White European skin is closely linked to two genes, MC1R and SLC24A5:

  • MC1R – This gene codes for the melanocortin 1 receptor protein. Variants of this gene result in reduced melanin production, giving rise to red hair and fair skin that burns easily.
  • SLC24A5 – This gene codes for a protein that impacts melanogenesis and calcium signaling. The depigmented version of this gene is nearly universal in European populations and found at highest frequencies in Northwestern Europe.

These two genes appear to account for a significant portion of depigmented European skin. However other genes likely contribute as well.

East Asian skin tone shows a different genetic architecture. It is linked to variation in genes such as OCA2, DCT, and AIM1, although the specific genetic mechanisms are still being elucidated.

Is white skin still evolving?

Skin color has continued to evolve over the past few thousand years and is likely still evolving today. Some studies have detected subtle changes in European skin tone within the past 3,000 years.

One example is the HIS1 gene which impacts skin and hair color. One variant of this gene shows a gradient of increasing frequency as you move from Southern to Northern Europe. This suggests that it has increased in prevalence since white skin first evolved.

Additionally, intermixing with groups from other regions may introduce new skin color variants. For instance, pale skin genes like SLC24A5 are thought to have come from the Middle East originally before spreading into Europe.

Finally, relaxed selection pressures due to diet and lifestyle changes may also allow skin tones to drift and vary over time. For example, more indoor lifestyles reduce the evolutionary benefits of pale skin.

In summary, white European skin tone has likely subtly shifted in frequency and shade within just the past few millennia and continues to evolve.

Why is skin color so variable?

Humans demonstrate a wider range of skin pigmentation than other primate species. Why did our skin become so diverse?

The leading theory is that different skin tones evolved as adaptations to varied UV radiation levels across different latitudes and environments. As humans migrated around the globe, skin tone adjusted to local conditions through natural selection.

However, skin color is also influenced by genetic drift and non-adaptive pressures. For example, sexual selection may influence preferences for lighter or darker skin.

Additionally, depigmented skin likely evolved initially due to UV adaptation. But once it became prevalent, it could spread through social selection pressures and mating preferences.

In summary, a mix of adaptive selection, genetic drift, and social/sexual selection pressures led to the wide spectrum of skin tones we see across human populations.


In conclusion, white skin very likely evolved as an adaptation to lower UV radiation levels as humans migrated north out of Africa. Evolutionary pressure to boost vitamin D synthesis from limited sunlight drove the emergence of pale skin. This trait was favored by natural selection and spread in northern populations. White skin is linked to key genes such as SLC24A5 and MC1R that regulate melanin production. However, skin tone has continued to subtly evolve and adapt to new environments and lifestyles over the past several thousand years and counting.