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What did red hair originate from?

What did red hair originate from?

Red hair is a unique and striking hair color that occurs naturally in 1-2% of the global population. The distinctive red hue is the result of a genetic mutation that causes an excess production of a reddish pigment called pheomelanin. But where did this mutation come from and how did red hair spread to different parts of the world?

The origins of red hair can be traced back to ancient times and certain geographic regions. Understanding the history and genetics behind red hair provides insight into human migration patterns and how certain traits are passed on. Examining archaeological evidence, genetic research, and recorded history gives us clues about the emergence and spread of red hair throughout the world.

Red Hair in Ancient History

Red hair has been depicted in art and artifacts dating back thousands of years. In ancient Egypt, red-haired individuals were sometimes depicted in wall paintings and hieroglyphics, suggesting the trait was present in North Africa since prehistoric times. Mummies with reddish-brown hair have also been found in the Tarim Basin region of modern day Xinjiang, China dating back to 1800 BC.

The ancient Greeks and Romans left written descriptions of redheaded Celtic and Germanic tribes living in what is now northern and western Europe. The ancient historian Tacitus described the “red hair and large limbs” of the inhabitants of Caledonia (modern Scotland) in AD 98. Other Roman accounts described Gaulish tribes such as the Redones in France as having “red hair and large limbs.”

Early artistic depictions also provide evidence of red hair in ancient societies. Red-haired figures have been found painted on pottery fragments from the Zhou Dynasty in China (1046-256 BC). A fresco from Pompeii dated around AD 50 portrays a figure with reddish-brown hair. And an Ancient Greek krater from 500 BC depicts redheaded men in battle.

So there is strong archaeological and historical evidence showing red hair has existed since at least 1800 BC in populations throughout Eurasia and North Africa. But the origins of red hair likely stretch back even further into prehistory.

Genetics and Biology of Red Hair

On a biological level, red hair is caused by mutations in a gene called MC1R that is responsible for producing melanin pigment. Melanin comes in two primary forms: brown/black eumelanin and red/yellow pheomelanin. Most people produce a higher amount of eumelanin, but mutations in the MC1R gene disrupt eumelanin production causing higher pheomelanin levels and red hair.

This genetic mutation is believed to have first appeared anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 years ago during human evolution. Neanderthals are also thought to have possessed the MC1R variants leading to red hair based on DNA evidence. The mutation may have occurred independently among Neanderthals and early modern humans.

Red hair-causing MC1R mutations are recessive, so two mutated gene copies are needed to produce red hair. As early populations of humans migrated and settled across Eurasia, sometimes the mutation was passed on and concentrated in certain isolated groups.

Spread of Red Hair in Europe

Northern and western Europe have the highest modern-day concentrations of red hair. Certain populations in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, Iceland, and Norway have upwards of 10% redheaded individuals.

This distribution pattern suggests red hair was spread through ancient Celtic, Germanic, and Scandinavian migrations. The mutation likely first arose thousands of years ago during the repopulation of northern Europe after the Last Glacial Maximum. Archaeogenetic evidence indicates northern Europeans traced their ancestry to populations that retreated to southern European refuges like Iberia and the Balkans during the Ice Age.

As the glaciers receded around 12,000 years ago, these peoples slowly recolonized northern areas. Genetic analysis reveals many regional adaptations also emerged during this time, including light pigmentation and lactose tolerance. The MC1R mutation may have been another genetic variant that became concentrated in these founding northern European populations.

The highest modern frequencies of red hair are found in areas historically settled by Celtic peoples like Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Brittany. Celtic culture and languages spread across much of central and western Europe during the Iron Age. Red hair may have already been common among northern European groups like Germanic tribes when the Celts expanded through these regions.

Viking exploration and conquest after AD 700 also likely spread red hair to Iceland, Greenland, and other Norse settlements in the North Atlantic. The widespread distribution of red hair across parts of northern and western Europe suggests it has been present in the regional gene pool for thousands of years and was spread through the migrations of many cultures over time.

Red Hair in Central Asia and Asia

Outside of Europe, red hair displays a curious pattern of isolated pockets across western and central Asia. High frequencies of red hair have been documented in groups such as the Nuristani people of Afghanistan, the Uyghurs of northwest China, and the Pamiri peoples of Tajikistan.

This has led anthropologists to speculate red hair may have spread along the Silk Road trading routes during antiquity or earlier. A sample of mummies from the Tarim Basin dating around 1800 BC were found to carry the red hair variant of the MC1R gene, confirming this trait existed in the region since ancient times.

Some scholars have hypothesized red hair first arose among human populations in Central Asia then spread in various migrations both west into Europe and east into Asia. The sparse distribution in these areas compared to Europe may reflect red hair’s origin in isolated groups that later dispersed through migration and trade.

The origins of red hair in other parts of Asia, including South Asia and the Middle East, are less clear. Natural red hair can sometimes occur sporadically as a recessive trait even in predominantly dark-haired populations. More research is needed to determine if red hair arose independently in certain Asian groups or was introduced through ancient Eurasian interactions.

Red Hair in Africa and Melanesia

Outside of Eurasia, red hair has been observed in certain African and Oceanic populations. In Africa, pockets of red hair have been reported in the Berber populations of Morocco and the Tuareg peoples of Mali and Niger. However, the red hair variants of MC1R do not appear to be present in African genetics. Red hair among the Berbers may be due to ancient Eurasian migrations into North Africa or sporadic genetic mutations.

Surprisingly, red hair has been observed among certain indigenous peoples of Melanesia in the Pacific, including some Aboriginal Australians and Melanesian Fijians. Again, genetic testing has not uncovered MC1R red hair variants common in Europe. The reddish hair in Melanesia appears to have evolved independently through different genetic mechanisms related to blond hair. More research is needed to understand this phenomenon.


In summary, red hair has origins tracing back thousands of years to ancient mutations that disrupted melanin pigment production. These genetic variants likely first emerged among early Eurasian populations. Red hair grew concentrated in certain groups and spread through migrations across Europe, Central Asia, and parts of East Asia. The highest modern frequencies are found in the northern and western European ancestry groups. But pockets of red hair in other parts of Asia and Africa suggest ancient dispersals. Red hair continues to be a rare and vibrant trait reminding us of the intricacies of our human ancestry.