Race: A Clarification


(The distance between Native Americans and East Asians on this rough chart is too long.)

It has come to my attention that some of you (I am looking at you) don’t know what I mean by the word “race.” I try to be consistent, but unfortunately, the word is used pretty inconsistently out in society–“Human race,” “Asian race,” “English race,” “Female race,” etc. There is even a term, “landrace” used over in biology to denote a domesticated, locally adapted, traditional variety of a species of animal or plant. “Race” was originally used similar to “breed” or “lineage;” today, people usually use it to denote a level of genetic relatedness one step up from ethnic group.

source: Big Think: Genetic map of Europe

When I use it, I am (usually) referring to one of the three macro-races of humanity: Sub-Saharan Africans, Caucasians, and Asians.

People often treat “Caucasian” and “white” as synonyms, but they’re not. “Caucasians” includes North Africans, Middle Easterners, Europeans, and many Indians (from India.) Three of these groups are not generally thought of as being included in “white,” but from a genetic perspective they definitely cluster together in the Caucasian clade (depicted above.) People may tell you that “race is a social construct,” but human population clades are not.

Since people don’t use “race” in any consistent way, it would be valid to refer to a “white race” that is a subset of the greater Caucasian race–but this is confusing because two different levels of genetic similarity are being described with the same word.

I have personally come to regard “white” as an America-centric ethnonym, (but I can’t promise I have always used it consistently.)

What do I mean?

“Whites” and “Blacks” in America are not drawn equally from all pale and dark skinned groups back in Europe and Africa. Indeed, just having some kind of European identity (eg, Irish,) is often enough to incur an at least joking insistence that one is not white.

Remember that homo Sapiens is about 300,000 years old, give or take a decade, and the era of swift, long-range travel is only about 500 years old. The “races” and “ethnic groups” that existed in 1491 were largely a result of travel being difficult, with barriers like the Sahara desert and the Himalayas massively interfering with human movement. These barriers effectively separated most human groups, preventing them from interbreeding and thus sending them off in their own genetic directions–until 1492.

People over-thought ancestry long before 23 and Me

Post 1492, the Americas became a mixing zone where Native Americans (Asian clade), Europeans (Caucasians) and West Africans (Sub Saharan Africans) met and interacted–the many degrees of mixed race ancestry found in Latin America are one result of this interaction.

American whites hailed, indeed, from a different race than American blacks and they, in turn, from American Indians. So within the American context, calling them different races made sense–and was accurate. But they were never drawn equally from all parts of their greater racial clades. They were drawn from particular ethnic groups back home–US “whites” initially from Northwest European countries like Britain, France, and the Netherlands.

When these different ethnic groups got here and started marrying each other, they became their own, new ethnic group.

So when people ask, “Is so-and-so white?” or “Is this group white?” it depends on what exactly you mean by white. Do you mean “light skinned”? Treated as white in the US? European? Hailing from one of the ethnic groups that contributed to “whites” in the US? Not possessing any competing European ethnic identity besides white?

Light-skinned Hazara (red), Tajik and Pashtun girls, Afghanistan.

Usually meaning can be inferred from conversation, but things can get confusing when people are using two different definitions or when discussing groups that didn’t contribute much to America’s founding stock.

I have perhaps mentioned before my discomfort with the word “racism”–not because I don’t think people discriminate against other people, but because it privileges offenses that cross a certain level of genetic dissimilarity between people as worse than offenses that cross smaller differences.

Was the English genocide of the Boers somehow less bad simply because the English and Boers are both “white”? Yes, we could say that the English were racist against the Boers, despite being part of the same race, or declare that the “English race” is a thing, but this is confusing. Plus, people can dislike each other for reasons totally unrelated to race, such as being male or female, disabled, or unattractive. I doubt anyone who was turned down for a date or denied a job because they happen to have the misfortune of being ugly ever comforted themself that at least they weren’t turned down because of their race.

And then there is the recent trend of calling people racist for disliking particular religions, even though Americans have traditionally thought of religions as belief systems–matters of opinion–rather than ethnic groups. (Indeed, there is a deep conflict between the traditional American view that religion is a matter of conscience, enshrined in the Bill of Rights next to the Freedom of Speech, and thus freely criticisable like any other opinion, and the view put forth by various endogamous ethno-religious groups that religion is ethnicity and therefore any criticism is racist.)

But to sum: when I use “race,” I am referring to the macro-races of Caucasians, East Asians, and Sub-Saharan Africans. I try not to confuse matters by mixing up genetic levels, but I can’t promise I have always been consistent in every post.


North Africa in Genetics and History

detailed map of African and Middle Eastern ethnicities in Haaks et al’s dataset

North Africa is an often misunderstood region in human genetics. Since it is in Africa, people often assume that it contains the same variety of people referenced in terms like “African Americans,” “black Africans,” or even just “Africans.” In reality, the African content contains members of all three of the great human clades–Sub-Saharan Africans in the south, Polynesians (Asian clade) in Madagascar, and Caucasians in the north.

The North African Middle Stone Age and its place in recent human evolution provides an overview of the first 275,000 years of humanity’s history in the region(300,000-25,000 years ago, more or less), including the development of symbolic culture and early human dispersal. Unfortunately the paper is paywalled.

Throughout most of human history, the Sahara–not the Mediterranean or Red seas–has been the biggest local impediment to human migration–thus North Africans are much closer, genetically, to their neighbors in Europe and the Middle East than their neighbors across the desert (and before the domestication of the camel, about 3,000 years ago, the Sahara was even harder to cross.)

But from time to time, global weather patterns change and the Sahara becomes a garden: the Green Sahara. The last time we had a Green Sahara was about 9-7,000 years ago; during this time, people lived, hunted, fished, herded and perhaps farmed throughout areas that are today nearly uninhabited wastes.

The Peopling of the last Green Sahara revealed by high-coverage resequencing of trans-Saharan patrilineages sheds light on how the Green (and subsequently brown) Sahara affected the spread (and separation) of African groups into northern and sub-Saharan:

In order to investigate the role of the last Green Sahara in the peopling of Africa, we deep-sequence the whole non-repetitive portion of the Y chromosome in 104 males selected as representative of haplogroups which are currently found to the north and to the south of the Sahara. … We find that the coalescence age of the trans-Saharan haplogroups dates back to the last Green Sahara, while most northern African or sub-Saharan clades expanded locally in the subsequent arid phase. …

Our findings suggest that the Green Sahara promoted human movements and demographic expansions, possibly linked to the adoption of pastoralism. Comparing our results with previously reported genome-wide data, we also find evidence for a sex-biased sub-Saharan contribution to northern Africans, suggesting that historical events such as the trans-Saharan slave trade mainly contributed to the mtDNA and autosomal gene pool, whereas the northern African paternal gene pool was mainly shaped by more ancient events.

In other words, modern North Africans have some maternal (female) Sub-Saharan DNA that arrived recently via the Islamic slave trade, but most of their Sub-Saharan Y-DNA (male) is much older, hailing from the last time the Sahara was easy to cross.

Note that not much DNA is shared across the Sahara:

After the African humid period, the climatic conditions became rapidly hyper-arid and the Green Sahara was replaced by the desert, which acted as a strong geographic barrier against human movements between northern and sub-Saharan Africa.

A consequence of this is that there is a strong differentiation in the Y chromosome haplogroup composition between the northern and sub-Saharan regions of the African continent. In the northern area, the predominant Y lineages are J-M267 and E-M81, with the former being linked to the Neolithic expansion in the Near East and the latter reaching frequencies as high as 80 % in some north-western populations as a consequence of a very recent local demographic expansion [810]. On the contrary, sub-Saharan Africa is characterised by a completely different genetic landscape, with lineages within E-M2 and haplogroup B comprising most of the Y chromosomes. In most regions of sub-Saharan Africa, the observed haplogroup distribution has been linked to the recent (~ 3 kya) demic diffusion of Bantu agriculturalists, which brought E-M2 sub-clades from central Africa to the East and to the South [1117]. On the contrary, the sub-Saharan distribution of B-M150 seems to have more ancient origins, since its internal lineages are present in both Bantu farmers and non-Bantu hunter-gatherers and coalesce long before the Bantu expansion [1820].

In spite of their genetic differentiation, however, northern and sub-Saharan Africa share at least four patrilineages at different frequencies, namely A3-M13, E-M2, E-M78 and R-V88.

A recent article in Nature, “Whole Y-chromosome sequences reveal an extremely recent origin of the most common North African paternal lineage E-M183 (M81),” tells some of North Africa’s fascinating story:

Here, by using whole Y chromosome sequences, we intend to shed some light on the historical and demographic processes that modelled the genetic landscape of North Africa. Previous studies suggested that the strategic location of North Africa, separated from Europe by the Mediterranean Sea, from the rest of the African continent by the Sahara Desert and limited to the East by the Arabian Peninsula, has shaped the genetic complexity of current North Africans15,16,17. Early modern humans arrived in North Africa 190–140 kya (thousand years ago)18, and several cultures settled in the area before the Holocene. In fact, a previous study by Henn et al.19 identified a gradient of likely autochthonous North African ancestry, probably derived from an ancient “back-to-Africa” gene flow prior to the Holocene (12 kya). In historic times, North Africa has been populated successively by different groups, including Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals and Byzantines. The most important human settlement in North Africa was conducted by the Arabs by the end of the 7th century. Recent studies have demonstrated the complexity of human migrations in the area, resulting from an amalgam of ancestral components in North African groups15,20.

According to the article, E-M81 is dominant in Northwest Africa and absent almost everywhere else in the world.

The authors tested various men across north Africa in order to draw up a phylogenic tree of the branching of E-M183:

The distribution of each subhaplogroup within E-M183 can be observed in Table 1 and Fig. 2. Indeed, different populations present different subhaplogroup compositions. For example, whereas in Morocco almost all subhaplogorups are present, Western Sahara shows a very homogeneous pattern with only E-SM001 and E-Z5009 being represented. A similar picture to that of Western Sahara is shown by the Reguibates from Algeria, which contrast sharply with the Algerians from Oran, which showed a high diversity of haplogroups. It is also worth to notice that a slightly different pattern could be appreciated in coastal populations when compared with more inland territories (Western Sahara, Algerian Reguibates).

Overall, the authors found that the haplotypes were “strikingly similar” to each other and showed little geographic structure besides the coastal/inland differences:

As proposed by Larmuseau et al.25, the scenario that better explains Y-STR haplotype similarity within a particular haplogroup is a recent and rapid radiation of subhaplogroups. Although the dating of this lineage has been controversial, with dates proposed ranging from Paleolithic to Neolithic and to more recent times17,22,28, our results suggested that the origin of E-M183 is much more recent than was previously thought. … In addition to the recent radiation suggested by the high haplotype resemblance, the pattern showed by E-M183 imply that subhaplogroups originated within a relatively short time period, in a burst similar to those happening in many Y-chromosome haplogroups23.

In other words, someone went a-conquering.

Alternatively, given the high frequency of E-M183 in the Maghreb, a local origin of E-M183 in NW Africa could be envisaged, which would fit the clear pattern of longitudinal isolation by distance reported in genome-wide studies15,20. Moreover, the presence of autochthonous North African E-M81 lineages in the indigenous population of the Canary Islands, strongly points to North Africa as the most probable origin of the Guanche ancestors29. This, together with the fact that the oldest indigenous inviduals have been dated 2210 ± 60 ya, supports a local origin of E-M183 in NW Africa. Within this scenario, it is also worth to mention that the paternal lineage of an early Neolithic Moroccan individual appeared to be distantly related to the typically North African E-M81 haplogroup30, suggesting again a NW African origin of E-M183. A local origin of E-M183 in NW Africa > 2200 ya is supported by our TMRCA estimates, which can be taken as 2,000–3,000, depending on the data, methods, and mutation rates used.

However, the authors also note that they can’t rule out a Middle Eastern origin for the haplogroup since their study simply doesn’t include genomes from Middle Eastern individuals. They rule out a spread during the Neolithic expansion (too early) but not the Islamic expansion (“an extensive, male-biased Near Eastern admixture event is registered ~1300 ya, coincidental with the Arab expansion20.”) Alternatively, they suggest E-M183 might have expanded near the end of the third Punic War. Sure, Carthage (in Tunisia) was defeated by the Romans, but the era was otherwise one of great North African wealth and prosperity.


Interesting papers! My hat’s off to the authors. I hope you enjoyed them and get a chance to RTWT.

Do Chilblains Affect Blacks More than Whites?

toes afflicted with chilblains
toes afflicted with chilblains

While tromping through a blizzard, seeking insight into circum-polar peoples, I discovered a condition called chilblains. The relevant Wikipedia page is rather short:

Chilblains … is a medical condition that occurs when a predisposed individual is exposed to cold and humidity, causing tissue damage. It is often confused with frostbite and trench foot. Damage to capillary beds in the skin causes redness, itching, inflammation, and sometimes blisters. Chilblains can be reduced by keeping the feet and hands warm in cold weather, and avoiding extreme temperature changes. Chilblains can be idiopathic (spontaneous and unrelated to another disease), but may also be a manifestation of another serious medical condition that needs to be investigated.

The part they don’t mention is that it can really hurt.

The first HBD-related question I became interested in–after visiting a black friend’s house and observing that she was comfortable without the AC on, even though it was summer–is whether people from different latitudes prefer different temperatures. It seems pretty obvious: surely people from Yakutsk prefer different temperatures than people from Pakistan. It also seems easy to test: just put people in a room and give them complete control over the thermostat. And yet, I’d never heard anyone discuss the idea.

Anyway, the perfunctory Wikipedia page on chilblains mentioned nothing about racial or ethnic predisposition to the condition–even though surely the Eskimo (Inuit) who have genetic admixture from both ice-age Neanderthals and Denisovans:

“Using this method, they found two regions with a strong signal of selection: (i) one region contains the cluster of FADS genes, involved in the metabolism of unsaturated fatty acids; (ii) the other region contains WARS2 and TBX15, located on chromosome 1.” …

“TBX15 plays a role in the differentiation of brown and brite adipocytes. Brown and brite adipocytes produce heat via lipid oxidation when stimulated by cold temperatures, making TBX15 a strong candidate gene for adaptation to life in the Arctic.” …

“The Inuit DNA sequence in this region matches very well with the Denisovan genome, and it is highly differentiated from other present-day human sequences, though we can’t discard the possibility that the variant was introduced from another archaic group whose genomes we haven’t sampled yet,” Dr. Racimo said.

The scientists found that the variant is present at low-to-intermediate frequencies throughout Eurasia, and at especially high frequencies in the Inuits and Native American populations, but almost absent in Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africans have their own archaic admixture, but they have very little to no ice-age hominin–which is probably good for them, except for those who’ve moved further north.

Imagine my surprised upon searching and discovering very little research on whether chilblains disproportionately affects people of different races or ethnicities. If you were a dermatologist–or a genetically prone person–wouldn’t you want to know?

So here’s what I did find:

The National Athletic Trainers Association Position Statement on Cold Injuries notes:

Black individuals have been shown to be 2 to 4 times more likely than individuals from other racial groups to sustain cold injuries. These differences may be due to cold weather experience, but are likely due to anthropometric and body composition differences, including less-pronounced CIVD, increased sympathetic response to cold exposure, and thinner, longer digits.3,6

I think CIVD=Cold-Induced Vasodilation

The Military Surgeon: Journal of the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States, Volumes 36-37, states:


c2ijvyvveaaehdz c2ijw49vqaajuou

The text continues with descriptions of amputating rotting feet.

A PDF from the UK, titled “Cold Injury,” notes:


Notice that the incidence of chilblains is actually less in extremely cold places than moderately cold places–attributed here to people in these places being well-equipped for the cold.


Finally I found a PDF of a study performed, I believe, by the US Military, Epidemiology of US Army Cold Weather Injuries, 1980-1999:


While I would really prefer to have more ethnic groups included in the study, two will have to suffice. It looks like trench foot may be an equal-opportunity offender, but chilblains, frostbite, and other cold-related injuries attack black men (at least in the army) at about 4x the rate of white men, and black women 2x as often as white women (but women in the army may not endure the same conditions as men in the army.)

On a related note, while researching this post, I came across this historic reference to infectious scurvy and diabetes, in the Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, Volumes 4-5 (published in 1902):


Note: this is why it is important to discard bad theories after they’ve been disproven. Otherwise, you kill your scurvy victims by quarantining them instead of giving them oranges.

Race: The Social Construction of Biological Reality

Note: This post contains a lot of oversimplification for the sake of explaining a few things. (Yes, I am still meditating on the greater Asian clade.)

Imagine you’re driving down a long highway that stretches from Nigeria to Beijing, passing through Berlin and New Delhi. In reality this route takes some large twists and turns, but we’re drawing it as a straight line, for all maps must simplify to be useful.

As you drive along, you pass many houses along the way–sometimes just a few clustered next to the highway, sometimes small towns, sometimes megalopolises with billions of people.


Queen Anna Nzinga of Ndongo and Matatmba
Queen Anna Nzinga of Ndongo and Matatmba

Our drive begins in one such megalopolis, that of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA.) Here we meet people like Queen Anna Nzinga, author Chinua Achebe, and–though they have traveled far abroad–African Americans like Oprah Winfrey and Martin Luther King.

Though thousands of different languages are spoken by the thousands of different groups throughout SSA, we may still note a certain physical similarity among them–dark skin perfectly adapted to the equator’s strong sun, dark eyes, and tightly curling hair. While there is a tremendous amount of variety here–probably the most of any megalopolis in the world–they are also, quite clearly, related. You don’t have to go measuring skulls to figure that out.

But as we drive north, the houses thin out. Suddenly we are in a zone with almost no people–an enormous desert: the Sahara.

We speed through this harsh, empty landscape on a starry night, spotting only a few camels in the distance. We’re lucky we have a full tank of gas and several more in the trunk–for all but the most intrepid of our pre-automobile ancestors, this desert was nigh impassible, a vast barrier to human movement.

King Tutankhamun receives flowers from Ankhesenpaaten as a sign of love.
King Tut receives flowers from Ankhesenpaaten as a sign of love.

Finally we reach the vast inland sea of the Mediterranean, and the beginning of our second megalopolis. Most of the people here, from Berbers to Egyptians, have their own distinct look, more similar to their neighbors from the Middle East and Southern Europe than their neighbors to the south, across the inhospitable expanse of sand.

While there are many different countries and languages, no clear phenotypic line separates the people of Northern Africa, the Middle East, southern Europe, or northern Europe. Skin pales, hair lightens and becomes wavy, eyes turn a variety of hues as one nationality melts into the next. North-central Europe is the only place in the world where blue/green/hazel eyes and blond hair are common in adults; even in Wales, dark hair is dominant.

US Defense Secretary William S. Cohen with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (1998)
US Defense Secretary William S. Cohen (Jewish surname) with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (Punjabi,) 1998

We hang a right through Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and India, teeming with people.  Here again, though the people change and there are barriers like the Thar Desert, we find no harsh, nigh-impenetarable breaks like the Sahara.

Then, suddenly, we run smack into a wall, a natural wall of majestic proportions: the Himalayas. Beyond lie the Tibetan Plateau, Gobi Desert, and the vast emptiness of the Asian steppe. If this land was ever densely populated, generations of marauding steppe warriors have wiped them out. We see a few people here–aptly named Tibetan lamas, flocks of sheep grazing beside a scattering of yurts. Mongolia holds the distinction of being the world’s least densely populated independent country. (Ice-covered Greenland is even less dense, but owned by Denmark.)

Finally we pass beyond the shadow of the Great Khan’s memorial and into the valley of the Yellow River, where we find our third megalopolis: east Asia.

There is notably less genetic diversity here than in the first megalopolis–indeed, 93% of Han Chinese share a particular variety of the EDAR allele:

A derived G-allele point mutation (SNP) with pleiotropic effects in EDAR, 370A or rs3827760, found in most modern East Asians and Native Americans but not common in African or European populations, is thought to be one of the key genes responsible for a number of differences between these populations, including the thicker hair, more numerous sweat glands, smaller breasts, and dentition characteristic of East Asians.[7] … The 370A mutation arose in humans approximately 30,000 years ago, and now is found in 93% of Han Chinese and in the majority of people in nearby Asian populations.

The late, great, Satoru Iwata, accompanied by a caricature of a hard-working Caucasian toilet engineer
The late, great, Satoru Iwata, accompanied by a caricature of a hard-working Caucasian toilet engineer

Here, too, skin tones vary from north to south, though not as greatly as they do closer to the Greenwich Meridian. Most people have dark eyes, slim frames, and straight, smooth black hair.

Here in the megalopolis made famous by Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul, and Tokyo, we have come to the end of the–first round–of our journey. From Africa to Asia, we have found three vast areas filled with people, and two major barriers which–though not completely impassible–have hindered humanity’s footsteps over the millennia.

People sometimes try to claim that human races do not exist simply because edge cases exist, small, scattered groups which possess a mixture of genes common to both Sub-Saharan Africans and Caucasians, Caucasians and Asians. And these groups do in fact exist, and are fascinating in their own rights. But these groups are also small, often living in extremely harsh, forbidding lands where few humans can survive (The inhabitants of the Himalayas and Tibetan plateau, I note, actually carry a gene that helps them survive at high altitudes which they received via an ancestor’s dalliance with a Denisovan hominin–the Denisovans were cousin to the Neanderthals and lived in Asia long before Homo Sapiens. No one else in the world carries this gene, so if you don’t have it, good luck living up there!)

But the vast, vast majority of the world’s people do not live in these harsh and unforgiving lands. They live clustered together in the enormous population centers, continually mixing, migrating, churning, and conquering each other, not people thousands of miles off. The concept of race stems from this basic observation of the geography of human settlements.

I totally stole this from Razib Khan, didn't I?
I totally stole this from Razib Khan, didn’t I?

Physical distance is genetic distance, but since my diagram is only two-dimensional, it can only show the genetic distance between two points at a time. The genetic distance between Asians and Caucasians is about 40k years–much shorter than the distance between Sub-Saharan Africans and Caucasians, 70k years. But the distance between Sub-Saharan Africans and Asians is also about 70k years. Although Asians and Caucasians split apart from each other about 40,000 years ago, they are both descended from a single group of ancestors (a handful of Denisovans and Neanderthals excluded) who left sub-Saharan Africa about 70k years ago. We may best think of the relationship between these three groups not as a single highway, but as a triangle with two sides 70k long and one side of 40k. But to accurately add more groups to our journey, (as we shall do on Thursday), we would have to keep adding dimensions, and we are aiming here for simplicity, not n-dimensional hypercubes.

So who is White?

“White” is a nebulous category. “Black” is actually easier to define, because there’s a pretty hard boundary (the Sahara) between black Africa and everywhere else. To be fair, there are also groups like the Bushmen (who are more tawny brownish,) and the Pygmies who are genetically separate from other sub-Saharan Africans by over 100,000 years, but these are pretty small on the global scale. But “whites” and “Asians” occupy the same continent, and thus shade into each other.

If we use a strictly skin tone definition (as the world “white” implies) we can just pull up a map of global skin tone variation:

source: Wikipedia
source: Wikipedia

Of course, this implies that either Spaniards and Finns aren’t white, or Chinese and Eskimos are. Either way is fine, of course, though this would contradict most people’s usage. (And I kind of question that data on the Finns:

credit: The Postnational Monitor
credit: The Postnational Monitor)

These composites of faces from around the world offer us some more data, though depending on how they were made, they may not accurately reflect skin tone in all countries (ie, if the creator relied on pictures of famous people available on the internet, then these will reflect local beauty norms than group averages.)

(Plus, I wonder why the Romanians are pink.)

J. B. Huang has taken some of the Eurasian faces from this set and gone through the effort of trying to quantitize their shapes, as displayed in this graph (at least, that’s what I think they’re doing):

all_embeddingInterestingly, while some of the faces cluster together the way you might expect–China, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan are all near each other, as are Belgium and the Netherlands–many of the groupings are near random, eg, Mongolia, Turkey, and the Philippines. Hungary and Austria are closer to India and Japan than to Poland or Finland. The European faces are all over the map.

Maybe this doesn’t mean anything at all, or maybe it means that there’s a lot of variation in European faces.

This is actually not too surprising, given that modern Europeans are genetically descended from three different groups who conquered the peninsula in successive waves, leaving more or less of their DNA in different areas: the hunter gatherers who were there first, followed by farmers who spread out from Anatolia (modern Turkey,) followed by the “Indo-Europeans” aka the Yamnaya, who were part hunter gatherer (by DNA, not profession) and part another group whose origins have yet to be located, but which I call the “teal people” because their DNA is teal on Haak’s graph.

Oh yes, we are getting to Haak.

Click for full size
From Haak et al.

This isn’t the full graph, but it’s probably enough for our purposes. The European countries show a characteristic profile of Orange, Dark Blue, and Teal. (By contrast, the east Asian countries, which cluster closely together on the facial map, are mostly yellow with only a bit of red.)

Obviously DNA isn’t actually colored. It’s just a visual aid.

Haak’s graph makes it fairly easy to rule out the groups that are definitely different (at least genetically.) The American Indians, Inuit, West Africans, Chinese, and Aborigines are distinctly out. This leaves us with Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, India, and parts of central Asia/Siberia:


The Orange-centric region, which Haak et al arranged to display the movements of the Anatolian farmer people.


The heavily teal Indian section (The middle part, from Hazara-Tlingit, are obviously not Indian).

siberiaAnd finally some Siberian DNA.

Now, I could stare at these all day; I love them. They tell so many fascinating stories about people and where they went. Of the three ancestries found in Europeans, the oldest, the dark blue (hunter-gatherers,) is found throughout India, Siberia, and even the Aleutian islands (though I caution that some of this could just be because of Russians raping the Aleuts back in the day.) The dark blue appears to hit a particular low point in the Caucuses region, which of course is about where the teal got its start.

The orange–Anatolian farmers–shows up throughout the Middle East and Europe, but is near totally absent in India and Siberia. (Not much farming in Siberia!)

At a lower resolution (not pictured,) India, central Asia, and Siberia appear to have a mix of–broadly speaking–“European” and “Asian” ancestry. (Not too surprising, since they are in the middle of the continent.) Obviously the middle of Asia is a big crossroads between different groups–red (Siberian) yellow (east Asian) teal and dark blue, and bits of the same DNA that shows up in the Eskimo (Inuit) and Aleuts.

But this is all kind of complicated. Luckily for us, this is only one way to visualize DNA–I’ve got others!

Credit Robert Lindsay, Beyond Highbrow
Credit Robert Lindsay, Beyond Highbrow

If you’re not familiar with these sorts of trees, the basic story is that geneticists gathered DNA samples (from spit, I think, which is pretty awesome,) from ethnic groups from all over the world, and then measured how many genes they have in common. More genes in common = groups more closely related to each other. Fewer genes = more genetic distance from each other.

Since different genetic samples and computer models are different, different teams have produced slightly different genetic trees.

Note that since the tree is constructed by comparing # of genes two groups have in common, a group could end up in a particular spot because it is descended from a common ancestor with other nearby groups, or because of mixing between two groups. Ashkenazi Jews, for example, cluster with southern Europeans because they’re about half Italian (and obviously half ancient Israeli.) Here’s another chart, giving us another perspective:

I totally stole this from Razib Khan, didn't I?
I totally stole this from Razib Khan–though he got it from here.

This chart also shows us genetic differences between groups, with strong clustering among African and East Asians, respectively, and then a sort of scattered group of Europeans and Indians (South Asians.)

Also credit Robert Lindsay
Also credit Robert Lindsay

Neither of these graphs shows Siberians or central Asians in great detail, because they are tiny groups, but I think it’s safe to say the Siberians at least cluster near their neighbors, the other Asians and far-north Americans.

The central and south Asians, though, are quite the interesting case!

Between archaeology and genetics, we’ve been able to trace the path of human expansion, from central Africa to the world:

I think this map came from that recent article about possibly finding traces of the first out-of-Africa event in Papuans.
I think this map came from that recent article I discussed in the post about possibly finding traces of the first out-of-Africa event in Papuans.

Since this post is already image heavy, here is a graph showing finer detail on European and North African groups, Moroccans, (Berbers), Aleut woman, Sardinians, Sami (Lapps), Iranians, Gujarati, (another), Dravidian, Brahmin, Dalits, Altai, Uyghur, Selkup. (Look at the pictures!)

Well, ultimately, there’s no hard division between most ethnic groups or races–you can draw dividing lines where you want them. The term “white” implies dermal paleness, of course, so you may prefer a narrower definition for “white” than “Caucasian.” Greater minds than mine have already covered the subject in more authoritative detail, of course. I merely offer my thoughts for entertainment.

When did Whites Evolve?

Defining exactly who is white is contentious and difficult–so I shan’t. If you want to debate among yourselves whether or not the Irish or Hindus count, that’s your own business.

Picture 1 Picture 2

Here’s Haak et al’s full graph of human genomes from around the world, (see here and here for various discussions.) The genomes on the far left are ancient European skeletons; everything from the “pink” section onward is modern. The “African” genomes all have bright blue at their bottoms; Asian (and American Indian) genomes all have yellow. The European countries tend to have a triple-color profile, reflecting their recent (evolutionarily speaking) mix of European hunter-gatherers (dark blue), Middle Eastern farmers (orange), and a “teal” group that came in with the Indo-European speakers, but whose origins we have yet to uncover:


Unsurprisingly, the Basque have less of this “teal.” Middle Easterners, as you can see, are quite similar genetically, but tend to have “purple” instead of “dark blue”

1024px-PSM_V52_D323_Global_hair_texture_mapPhysically, of course, whites’ most distinctive feature is pale skin. They are also unique among human clades in their variety of hair and eye colors, ranging from dark to light, and tend to have wavy hair that is “oval” in cross-section. (Africans tend to have curly hair that is flat in cross section, and Asians tend to have straight hair that is cylindrical in cross section. See map for more hair details.)

There are other traits–the Wikipedia page on “Caucasian race” (not exactly synonymous with “whites”) notes:

According to George W. Gill and other modern forensic anthropologists, physical traits of Caucasoid crania are generally distinct from those of the Mongoloid and Negroid races. They assert that they can identify a Caucasoid skull with an accuracy of up to 95% by the following features: [20][21][22][23][24]

  • An orthognathic profile, with minimal protrusion of the lower part of the face (little or no prognathism).
  • Retreating zygomatic bones (cheekbones), making the face look more “pointed”.
  • Narrow nasal aperture, with a tear-shaped nasal cavity (nasal fossa).

Bodyhair_map_according_to_American_Journal_of_Physical_Anthropology_and_other_sourcesBut I am not going to deal with any of these, unless I hear of something like the EDAR gene coding for a bunch of traits.

Old racial classifications made use of language groups as stand-ins for racial groups. This turns out to be not very reliable, as we’ve found that in many cases, a small group of conquerors has managed to impose its language without imposing its genetics, as you’ve discovered in real life if you’ve ever met an African or Indian who speaks English.

europe-hair0223--light-hThe first known modern humans in Europe (IE, not Neanderthals nor Homo Erectuses,) popularly known as Cro-Magnons and unpopularly known as European early modern humans, (because anthropologists hate being understood dislike sounding like commoners,) lived around 43,ooo-45,000 years ago in Italy. By 41,000 years ago, Cro-Magnons had reached the southern coast of England.

Humanity's path out of Africa
Humanity’s path out of Africa

(Incidentally, Mungo Man, found in south-east Australia, is also estimated to be about 40,000 years old, suggesting that either:

A. People took a much longer route from Africa to Europe than to Australia
B. Europe was difficult to enter when folks left Africa, possibly because of glaciers or Neanderthals
C. There were multiple Out-of-Africa events, or
D. Our knowledge is incomplete.

D is obviously true, and I favor C regardless of Mungo’s true age.)

source: Wikipedia
source: Wikipedia

These Cro-Magnons appear to have been brown skinned, brown eyed, and black haired–they likely looked more like their close relatives in the Middle East (whatever they looked like,) than their distant descendants in modern Europe. (Despite all of the mixing and conquering of the centuries, I think modern Europeans are partially descended from Cro-Magnons, but I could be wrong.)

The Cro-Magnons carved the famous “Venus of Willendorf” (we don’t really know if the figurine was intended as a “goddess” or a fertility figure or just a portrait of a local lady or what, but it’s a nice name,) among many other similar figurines, some of them quite stylized.

Venus of Monruz
Venus of Monruz
Venus of Willendorf
Venus of Willendorf
Venus of Brassempouy
Venus of Brassempouy

Some people think the figurines look African, with cornrows or peppercorn hair and steatopygia. Others suggest the figurines are wearing hats or braids, and point out that not all of them are fat or have large butts.



So when did Europeans acquire their modern appearances? Here’s what I’ve found so far:

Wikipedia states:

Variations in the KITL gene have been positively associated with about 20% of melanin concentration differences between African and non-African populations. One of the alleles of the gene has an 80% occurrence rate in Eurasian populations.[52][53] The ASIP gene has a 75–80% variation rate among Eurasian populations compared to 20–25% in African populations.[54] Variations in the SLC24A5 gene account for 20–25% of the variation between dark and light skinned populations of Africa,[55]and appear to have arisen as recently as within the last 10,000 years.[56] The Ala111Thr or rs1426654 polymorphism in the coding region of the SLC24A5 gene reaches fixation in Europe, but is found across the globe, particularly among populations in Northern Africa, the Horn of Africa, West Asia, Central Asia and South Asia.[57][58][59]

maps-europelighteyesThe Guardian reports:

According to a team of researchers from Copenhagen University, a single mutation which arose as recently as 6-10,000 years ago was responsible for all the blue-eyed people alive on Earth today.

The team, whose research is published in the journal Human Genetics, identified a single mutation in a gene called OCA2, which arose by chance somewhere around the northwest coasts of the Black Sea in one single individual, about 8,000 years ago.

Haplogroups_europeWikipedia again:

The hair color gene MC1R has at least seven variants in Europe giving the continent a wide range of hair and eye shades. Based on recent genetic research carried out at three Japanese universities, the date of the genetic mutation that resulted in blond hair in Europe has been isolated to about 11,000 years ago during the last ice age.[25]

Recent archaeological and genetic study published in 2014 found that, seven “Scandinavian hunter-gatherers” found in 7700-year-old Motala archaeological site in southern Sweden had both light skin gene variants, SLC24A5 and SLC45A2, they also had a third gene, HERC2/OCA2, which causes blue eyes and also contribute to lighter skin and blond hair.[29]

Genetic research published in 2014, 2015 and 2016 found that Yamnaya Proto-Indo-Europeans, who migrated to Europe in early bronze age were overwhelmingly dark-eyed (brown), dark-haired and had a skin colour that was moderately light, though somewhat darker than that of the average modern European.[49] While light pigmentation traits had already existed in pre-Indo-European Europeans (both farmers and hunter-gatherers) and long-standing philological attempts to correlate them with the arrival of Indo-Europeans from the steppes were misguided.[50]

According to genetic studies, Yamnaya Proto-Indo-European migration to Europe lead to Corded Ware culture, where Yamnaya Proto-Indo-Europeans mixed with “Scandinavian hunter-gatherer” women who carried genetic alleles HERC2/OCA2, which causes combination of blue eyes and blond hair.[51][52][53] Descendants of this “Corded Ware admixture”, split from Corded Ware culture in every direction forming new branches of Indo-European tree, notably Proto-Greeks, Proto-Italio-Celtic, Proto-Indo-Iranians and Proto-Anatolians.[54] Proto-Indo-Iranians who split from Corded ware culture, formed Andronovo culture and are believed to have spread genetic alleles HERC2/OCA2 that causes blonde hair to parts of West Asia, Central Asia and South Asia.[52]

Genetic analysis in 2014 also found that Afanasevo culture which flourished in Altai Mountains were genetically identical to Yamnaya Proto-Indo-Europeans and that they did not carry genetic alleles for blonde hair or light eyes.[55][51][52] Afanasevo culture was later replaced by second wave of Indo-European invaders from Andronovo culture, who were product of Corded Ware admixture that took place in Europe, and carried genetic alleles that causes blond hair and light eyes.[55][51][52]

Dienekes writes:

An interesting finding [in Ancient human genomes suggest three ancestral populations for present-day Europeans] is that the Luxembourg hunter-gatherer probably had blue eyes (like a Mesolithic La Brana Iberian, a paper on which seems to be in the works) but darker skin than the LBK farmer who had brown eyes but lighter skin. Raghavan et al. did not find light pigmentation in Mal’ta (but that was a very old sample), so with the exception of light eyes that seem established for Western European hunter-gatherers (and may have been “darker” in European steppe populations, but “lighter” in Bronze Age South Siberians?), the origin of depigmentation of many recent Europeans remains a mystery.

Beleza et al, in The Timing of Pigmentation Lightening in Europeans, write:

… we estimate that the onset of the sweep shared by Europeans and East Asians at KITLG occurred approximately 30,000 years ago, after the out-of-Africa migration, whereas the selective sweeps for the European-specific alleles at TYRP1, SLC24A5, and SLC45A2 started much later, within the last 11,000–19,000 years, well after the first migrations of modern humans into Europe.

And finally from Wikipedia:

In a 2015 study based on 230 ancient DNA samples, researchers traced the origins of several genetic adaptations found in Europe.[46] The original mesolithic hunter-gatherers were dark skinned and blue eyed.[46] The HERC2 and OCA2 variations for blue eyes are derived from the original mesolithic hunter-gatherers, and the genes were not found in the Yamna people.[46] The HERC2 variation for blue eyes first appears around 13,000 to 14,000 years ago in Italy and the Caucasus.[38]

The migration of the neolithic farmers into Europe brought along several new adaptations.[46] The variation for light skin color was introduced to Europe by the neolithic farmers.[46] After the arrival of the neolithic farmers, a SLC22A4 mutation was selected for, a mutation which probably arose to deal with ergothioneine deficiency but increases the risk of ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, and irritable bowel disease.

The genetic variations for lactose persistence and greater height came with the Yamna people.[46]

To sum:

Skin: 10,000 years, 11-19,000 years, possibly arriving after blue eyes

Blond hair: 11,000 years

Blue eyes: 6-10,000 years ago, 13,000 to 14,000 years ago

It looks like some of these traits emerged in different populations and later combined as they spread, but they all look like they arose at approximately the same time.
Obviously I have neglected red and brown hair, green and hazel eyes, but the genetics all seem to be related.