When Did Black People Evolve?

In previous posts, we discussed the evolution of Whites and Asians, so today we’re taking a look at people from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Modern humans only left Africa about 100,000 to 70,000 yeas ago, and split into Asians and Caucasians around 40,000 years ago. Their modern appearances came later–white skin, light hair and light eyes, for example, only evolved in the past 20,000 and possibly within the past 10,000 years.

What about the Africans, or specifically, Sub-Saharans? (North Africans, like Tunisians and Moroccans, are in the Caucasian clade.) When did their phenotypes evolve?

The Sahara, an enormous desert about the size of the United States, is one of the world’s biggest, most ancient barriers to human travel. The genetic split between SSAs and non-SSAs, therefore, is one of the oldest and most substantial among human populations. But there are even older splits within Africa–some of the ancestors of today’s Pygmies and Bushmen may have split off from other Africans 200,000-300,000 years ago. We’re not sure, because the study of archaic African DNA is still in its infancy.

Some anthropologists refer to Bushmen as “gracile,” which means they are a little shorter than average Europeans and not stockily built

The Bushmen present an interesting case, because their skin is quite light (for Africans.) I prefer to call it golden. The nearby Damara of Namibia, by contrast, are one of the world’s darkest peoples. (The peoples of South Sudan, eg Malik Agar, may be darker, though.) The Pygmies are the world’s shortest peoples; the peoples of South Sudan, such as the Dinka and Shiluk, are among the world’s tallest.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s ethnic groups can be grouped, very broadly, into Bushmen, Pygmies, Bantus (aka Niger-Congo), Nilotics, and Afro-Asiatics. Bushmen and Pygmies are extremely small groups, while Bantus dominate the continent–about 85% of Sub Saharan Africans speak a language from the Niger-Congo family. The Afro-Asiatic groups, as their name implies, have had extensive contact with North Africa and the Middle East.

Most of America’s black population hails from West Africa–that is, the primarily Bantu region. The Bantus and similar-looking groups among the Nilotics and Afro-Asiatics (like the Hausa) are, therefore, have both Africa’s most iconic and most common phenotypes.

For the sake of this post, we are not interested in the evolution of traits common to all humans, such as bipedalism. We are only interested in those traits generally shared by most Sub-Saharans and generally not shared by people outside of Africa.

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

One striking trait is black hair: it is distinctively “curly” or “frizzy.” Chimps and gorrilas do not have curly hair. Neither do whites and Asians. (Whites and Asians, therefore, more closely resemble chimps in this regard.) Only Africans and a smattering of other equatorial peoples like Melanesians have frizzy hair.

Black skin is similarly distinct. Chimps, who live in the shaded forest and have fur, do not have high levels of melanin all over their bodies. While chimps naturally vary in skin tone, an unfortunate, hairless chimp is practically “white.

Humans therefore probably evolved both black skin and frizzy hair at about the same time–when we came out of the shady forests and began running around on the much sunnier savannahs. Frizzy hair seems well-adapted to cooling–by standing on end, it lets air flow between the follicles–and of course melanin is protective from the sun’s rays. (And apparently, many of the lighter-skinned Bushmen suffer from skin cancer.)

Steatopygia also comes to mind, though I don’t know if anyone has studied its origins.

According to Wikipedia, additional traits common to Sub-Saharan Africans include:

In modern craniofacial anthropometry, Negroid describes features that typify skulls of black people. These include a broad and round nasal cavity; no dam or nasal sill; Quonset hut-shaped nasal bones; notable facial projection in the jaw and mouth area (prognathism); a rectangular-shaped palate; a square or rectangular eye orbit shape;[21] a large interorbital distance; a more undulating supraorbital ridge;[22] and large, megadontic teeth.[23] …

Modern cross-analysis of osteological variables and genome-wide SNPs has identified specific genes, which control this craniofacial development. Of these genes, DCHS2, RUNX2, GLI3, PAX1 and PAX3 were found to determine nasal morphology, whereas EDAR impacts chin protrusion.[27] …

Ashley Montagu lists “neotenous structural traits in which…Negroids [generally] differ from Caucasoids… flattish nose, flat root of the nose, narrower ears, narrower joints, frontal skull eminences, later closure of premaxillarysutures, less hairy, longer eyelashes, [and] cruciform pattern of second and third molars.”[28]

The Wikipedia page on Dark Skin states:

As hominids gradually lost their fur (between 4.5 and 2 million years ago) to allow for better cooling through sweating, their naked and lightly pigmented skin was exposed to sunlight. In the tropics, natural selection favoured dark-skinned human populations as high levels of skin pigmentation protected against the harmful effects of sunlight. Indigenous populations’ skin reflectance (the amount of sunlight the skin reflects) and the actual UV radiation in a particular geographic area is highly correlated, which supports this idea. Genetic evidence also supports this notion, demonstrating that around 1.2 million years ago there was a strong evolutionary pressure which acted on the development of dark skin pigmentation in early members of the genus Homo.[25]

About 7 million years ago human and chimpanzee lineages diverged, and between 4.5 and 2 million years ago early humans moved out of rainforests to the savannas of East Africa.[23][28] They not only had to cope with more intense sunlight but had to develop a better cooling system. …

Skin colour is a polygenic trait, which means that several different genes are involved in determining a specific phenotype. …

Data collected from studies on MC1R gene has shown that there is a lack of diversity in dark-skinned African samples in the allele of the gene compared to non-African populations. This is remarkable given that the number of polymorphisms for almost all genes in the human gene pool is greater in African samples than in any other geographic region. So, while the MC1Rf gene does not significantly contribute to variation in skin colour around the world, the allele found in high levels in African populations probably protects against UV radiation and was probably important in the evolution of dark skin.[57][58]

Skin colour seems to vary mostly due to variations in a number of genes of large effect as well as several other genes of small effect (TYR, TYRP1, OCA2, SLC45A2, SLC24A5, MC1R, KITLG and SLC24A4). This does not take into account the effects of epistasis, which would probably increase the number of related genes.[59] Variations in the SLC24A5 gene account for 20–25% of the variation between dark and light skinned populations of Africa,[60] and appear to have arisen as recently as within the last 10,000 years.[61] The Ala111Thr or rs1426654 polymorphism in the coding region of the SLC24A5 gene reaches fixation in Europe, and is also common among populations in North Africa, the Horn of Africa, West Asia, Central Asia and South Asia.[62][63][64]

That’s rather interesting about MC1R. It could imply that the difference in skin tone between SSAs and non-SSAs is due to active selection in Blacks for dark skin and relaxed selection in non-Blacks, rather than active selection for light skin in non-Blacks.

The page on MC1R states:

MC1R is one of the key proteins involved in regulating mammalianskin and hair color. …It works by controlling the type of melanin being produced, and its activation causes the melanocyte to switch from generating the yellow or red phaeomelanin by default to the brown or black eumelanin in replacement. …

This is consistent with active selection being necessary to produce dark skin, and relaxed selection producing lighter tones.

Studies show the MC1R Arg163Gln allele has a high frequency in East Asia and may be part of the evolution of light skin in East Asian populations.[40] No evidence is known for positive selection of MC1R alleles in Europe[41] and there is no evidence of an association between MC1R and the evolution of light skin in European populations.[42] The lightening of skin color in Europeans and East Asians is an example of convergent evolution.

However, we should also note:

Dark-skinned people living in low sunlight environments have been recorded to be very susceptible to vitamin D deficiency due to reduced vitamin D synthesis. A dark-skinned person requires about six times as much UVB than lightly pigmented persons.

PCA graph and map of sampling locations. Modern people are indicated with gray circles.

Unfortunately, most of the work on human skin tones has been done among Europeans (and, oddly, zebra fish,) limiting our knowledge about the evolution of African skin tones, which is why this post has been sitting in my draft file for months. Luckily, though, two recent studies–Loci Associated with Skin Pigmentation Identified in African Populations and Reconstructing Prehistoric African Population Structure–have shed new light on African evolution.

In Reconstructing Prehistoric African Population Structure, Skoglund et al assembled genetic data from 16 prehistoric Africans and compared them to DNA from nearby present-day Africans. They found:

  1. The ancestors of the Bushmen (aka the San/KhoiSan) once occupied a much wider area.
  2. They contributed about 2/3s of the ancestry of ancient Malawi hunter-gatherers (around 8,100-2,500 YA)
  3. Contributed about 1/3 of the ancestry of ancient Tanzanian hunter-gatherers (around 1,400 YA)
  4. Farmers (Bantus) spread from west Africa, completely replacing hunter-gatherers in some areas
  5. Modern Malawians are almost entirely Bantu.
  6. A Tanzanian pastoralist population from 3,100 YA spread out across east Africa and into southern Africa
  7. Bushmen ancestry was not found in modern Hadza, even though they are hunter-gatherers and speak a click language like the Bushmen.
  8. The Hadza more likely derive most of their ancestry from ancient Ethiopians
  9. Modern Bantu-speakers in Kenya derive from a mix between western Africans and Nilotics around 800-400 years ago.
  10. Middle Eastern (Levant) ancestry is found across eastern Africa from an admixture event that occurred around 3,000 YA, or around the same time as the Bronze Age Collapse.
  11. A small amount of Iranian DNA arrived more recently in the Horn of Africa
  12. Ancient Bushmen were more closely related to modern eastern Africans like the Dinka (Nilotics) and Hadza than to modern west Africans (Bantus),
  13. This suggests either complex relationships between the groups or that some Bantus may have had ancestors from an unknown group of humans more ancient than the Bushmen.
  14. Modern Bushmen have been evolving darker skins
  15. Pygmies have been evolving shorter stature
Automated clustering of ancient and modern populations (moderns in gray)

I missed #12-13 on my previous post about this paper, though I did note that the more data we get on ancient African groups, the more likely I think we are to find ancient admixture events. If humans can mix with Neanderthals and Denisovans, then surely our ancestors could have mixed with Ergaster, Erectus, or whomever else was wandering around.

Distribution of ancient Bushmen and Ethiopian DNA in south and east Africa

#15 is interesting, and consistent with the claim that Bushmen suffer from a lot of skin cancer–before the Bantu expansion, they lived in far more forgiving climates than the Kalahari desert. But since Bushmen are already lighter than their neighbors, this begs the question of how light their ancestors–who had no Levantine admixture–were. Could the Bantus’ and Nilotics’ darker skins have evolved after the Bushmen/everyone else split?

Meanwhile, in Loci Associated with Skin Pigmentation Identified in African Populations, Crawford et al used genetic samples from 1,570 people from across Africa to find six genetic areas–SLC24A5, MFSD12, DDB1, TMEM138, OCA2 and HERC2–which account for almost 30% of the local variation in skin color.

Bantu (green) and Levantine/pastoralist DNA in modern peoples

SLC24A5 is a light pigment introduced to east Africa from the Levant, probably around 3,000 years ago. Today, it is common in Ethiopia and Tanzania.

Interestingly, according to the article, “At all other loci, variants associated with dark pigmentation in Africans are identical by descent in southern Asian and Australo-Melanesian populations.”

These are the world’s other darkest peoples, such as the Jarawas of the Andaman Islands or the Melanesians of Bougainville, PNG. (And, I assume, some groups from India such as the Tamils.) This implies that these groups 1. had dark skin already when they left Africa, and 2. Never lost it on their way to their current homes. (If they had gotten lighter during their journey and then darkened again upon arrival, they likely would have different skin color variants than their African cousins.)

This implies that even if the Bushmen split off (around 200,000-300,000 YA) before dark skin evolved, it had evolved by the time people left Africa and headed toward Australia (around 100,000-70,000 YA.) This gives us a minimum threshold: it most likely evolved before 70,000 YA.

(But as always, we should be careful because perhaps there are even more skin color variant that we don’t know about yet in these populations.)

MFSD12 is common among Nilotics and is related to darker skin.

And according to the abstract, which Razib Khan posted:

Further, the alleles associated with skin pigmentation at all loci but SLC24A5 are ancient, predating the origin of modern humans. The ancestral alleles at the majority of predicted causal SNPs are associated with light skin, raising the possibility that the ancestors of modern humans could have had relatively light skin color, as is observed in the San population today.

The full article is not out yet, so I still don’t know when all of these light and dark alleles emerged, but the order is absolutely intriguing. For now, it looks like this mystery will still have to wait.