History has dealt a mixed hand to the redhead. Alternatively admired or derided for the color of their crowning glory, attitudes to those with red hair have always been polarized. Throughout time, redheads have been portrayed as beautiful and brave or else promiscuous, wild, hot-tempered, violent or immoral. Gingernut, carrot top, flame-haired, copper head and rusty are just some of the nicknames for red hair. The modern mind also associates the hair color with individual countries such as Scotland and Ireland or cultures such as the Vikings.
The reason for these attitudes and associations is complicated and lies partly in the origins of red hair and the human reaction to things that are different. For although 40% of people carry the gene for red hair, real redheads are rare, amounting to no more than 1% of the population. It requires two carriers to make a red-headed child. So why is red hair so rare and unique? What is its history, and is it fair to assigned heads such a turbulent reputation?
All in the Genes
Red hair has always been a question of genes. Clues suggested that red hair could have evolved in Paleolithic Europe amongst the Neanderthals. Scientists analyzed Neanderthal remains from Croatia and found a gene that resulted in red hair. However, the gene that causes red hair in modern humans is not the same as that in Neanderthals. Nor is the red-haired gene of either race found in any of the peoples who are descended from Paleolithic humans, namely the Finnish and most of Eastern Europe. This fact not only rules out interbreeding as a route for Homo sapiens red hair, but it also rules out early Europe, as it’s the birthplace.
Instead, the origins of red hair have been traced back to the Steppes of Central Asia as much as 100,000 years ago. The haplogroup of modern redheads indicates that their earliest ancestors migrated to the steppes from the Middle East because of the rise of herding during the Neolithic revolution. The Steppes were the perfect grazing lands for the herds of the agriculturists. Unfortunately, however, the lower UV levels of the area limited their bodies’ ability to synthesize vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiencies bring about weak bones, muscle pain and rickets in children. So the migrants had to change.
To survive their environment, people living in northern regions, in general, had begun to evolve to suit their environment and to allow their bodies more access to the limited light. As a consequence, their skin and hair started to become much lighter. In the eastern steppes, however, things occurred slightly differently. A mutation occurred in a gene known as M1CR which caused hair color not merely to lighten but to change entirely- to red. The skin of these new redhead people was well adapted to absorbing the much-needed UV light. It was, however, a little too sensitive to the sun- which is why redheads often sunburn and are more prone to skin cancer.
These pioneers of red hair then began to spread to the Balkans and central and Western Europe in the Bronze Age as they migrated once again, this time in search of metal. The majority of the migrants remained in these regions, although some spread further west to the Atlantic seaboard, and fewer still moved eastwards into Siberia and some as far south as India. However, these latter migrations were scant- which explains the rarity of red hair in these areas.
The Balkans and Western Europe now became established as the geographical and historical homeland of red-haired culture. It was one that was observed by ancient writers who began to form their conclusions about the red-haired peoples they encountered.