The Unexpectedly Violent History of Red Hair

The Unexpectedly Violent History of Red Hair

Natasha sheldon - March 6, 2018

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?


The Unexpectedly Violent History of Red Hair
Map of redheads across Europe. Picture credit: Eupedia. Google Images

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.

The Unexpectedly Violent History of Red Hair
Balkan warriors. Google Images

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.

The Unexpectedly Violent History of Red Hair
Gauls. Google Images

Culturally Red

The accounts of classical writers are quick to highlight red hair amongst the tribes they encountered in central and Western Europe. As early as the fifth century BC, Herodotus described the Budini, a Scythian tribe from the central-western Eurasian steppes as having “grey eyes and red hair,” as were the Thracians whose lands covered parts of modern Turkey, southeastern Bulgaria, and northeast Greece. These tribes were regarded as barbarians by the Greeks, despite their military prowess and sophisticated art. However, this was most likely because they were non-Hellenic than because of their hair color.

Meanwhile, the Romans were also noticing the abundance of red hair amongst the tribes they were encountering as their empire progressed ever westwards. Seneca noted that The color of the Ethiopian is not singular among his countrymen, nor is red hair tied up in a knot a peculiarity among the Germans.”Livy in his History of Rome describes the Gauls as of “tall stature” and having“Long red hair.” These physical characteristics married with their behavior in battle which was to “terrify and appall.” (38.17.4).

Tacitus also noticed the prevalence of red hair amongst the Germans. “For my own part, I agree with those who think that the tribes of Germany are free from all taint of intermarriages with foreign nations and that they appear as a distinct, unmixed race, like none but themselves, ” he noted in his Germania. “Hence, too, the same physical peculiarities throughout so vast a population. All have fierce blue eyes, red hair, huge frames”.

The Unexpectedly Violent History of Red Hair
Celtic Warrior. Google Images

He also noticed that many of the Celtic tribes of Britain also had red hair– and concluded- correctly- that this pointed to an interrelationship between the Celts, Germans and Gauls who all unbeknown to him originated from the central Asian migrations into Europe. In particular, Tacitus noted the Caledonians had “red hair and large limbs” which he felt pointed to a “Germanic origin.”

All of these red-haired tribes match the genetic makeup of the current inhabitants of the lands they occupied. Scotland, Wales and Ireland respectively- the British Celtic nations- all having the high level of red gene carriers and manifestations. On mainland Europe, Brittany, the border between France and Belgium, Switzerland, and Jutland – the ancestral lands of the Gaulish and Germanic tribes- also carry high levels of the red-haired gene. Southwest Norway is unique amongst the Scandinavian countries for the emergence of red hair which some feel justifies the portrayal of Vikings as red-haired. However, genetic analysis suggests that the genes dictating red hair in Norway was brought back there from Ireland and Scotland by Viking raiders.

However, not everyone in these areas would have had red hair. So why was it standing out as such a prominent feature to these southern observers?

The Unexpectedly Violent History of Red Hair
Judas Iscariot. Google Images

A Rare and Suspect Color

Both Greek and Roman culture were astute in noticing red hair was more prevalent in certain climates. The philosopher Aristotle noted that those living in northerly climes, as well as fishermen and divers usually had red hair. He reasoned this was because the moist environment both parties frequented made them chilly individuals but that their outer parts became red when they dried off in the sun! Vitruvius also made a similar but less fanciful observation, attributing red hair to the dampness of the climate because this made individuals living there more ‘moist.”

However, despite these rare attempts to rationalize red hair, ancient accounts emphasize certain traits as prevalent in redheads. As well as describing the Gauls, Germans, and Celts as predominantly red-headed – something that wasn’t true for everyone- the ancient writers portrayed them as warlike and uncivilized.

These portrayals were reflections of inbuilt classical preconceptions of redheads. Aristotle, while acknowledging the bravery of tawny-headed individuals because the color of their hair matched that of the pelt of a lion, also believed they were evil characters- because their hair color also matched that of a fox. The Romans also had quite a contradictory attitude to fiery hair. Once again, they regarded redheads, as untrustworthy- yet red hair was also desirable, as many Roman ladies aspired to it, prompting Roman wig makers to import quantities of red hair from northern Europe.

The Unexpectedly Violent History of Red Hair
Mary Magdalene.Google Images

The Classical suspicion of redheads probably derived from the fact red hair was so rare in the Mediterranean regions. Although Archaic Greek texts like the Iliad refer to Greek heroes such as Achilles and Menelaus as red-headed, less than 1% of the Mediterranean population carry the red-haired gene-despite the descent of some Italians from a portion of the steppe migrants who crossed the Alps in around 1300BC. Intermarriage with other peoples with more dominant genes meant that the recessive red gene rarely had a chance to express itself and so was incredibly rare.

However, this suspicion of red hair continued and evolved with time. In the Middle Ages and beyond, redheads acquired even more negative connotations. Red hair became an almost demonic badge, associated with witches, vampires, and werewolves. By the Renaissance, the Spanish Inquisition was using red hair as a way of identifying Jews- despite the low prevalence of red hair in Jewish people. This badge stuck. Artists began to portray dubious Jewish characters as redheads, such as the treacherous Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene before her repentance. This prejudiced tendency was carried into literature, with both Shakespeare and Dickens portraying their Jewish characters of Shylock and Fagin as red-haired.

Redheads were certainly rare. However, perhaps there is something more than a fear of the ‘other’ at work here. Reactions against redheads could be a reaction against the color red itself, as, in nature, red is often a symbol of danger. In 2011, a study of Rhesus monkeys was carried out. Keepers in red, green and blue shirts delivered food to the monkeys. While the monkeys readily accepted the food from the blue and green shirts, they universally rejected food brought by the red shirts.

Perhaps like the color of our hair, the suspicion of red is in our genes.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Neoptolemus, Encyclopedia Brittanica

Requiem for the Redhead, Smithsonian Magazine

The Violent History of Red Hair, K Thor Jenson, OMG facts

The Genetic Causes, Ethic Origins, and History of Red Hair, Maciamo Hay, Eupedia

BritainsDNA Announces the Results of the Red-Head Project,, 2012

The Washington Post – Red Hair: A Blessing Or A Curse?

Bright Side – 11 Reasons Why Redheads Are Unique

Medical Daily – Why Red Hair And Blue Eyes Is So Rare, Plus 4 Other Surprising Facts About Redheads

The Verge – Sex, Disease, And Extinction: What Ancient DNA Tells Us About Humans And Neanderthals

GCT – What’s The Real Reason Why Scotland Is Home To So Many Redheads?

The Telegraph – Mapped: Which Countries Have The Most Redheads?

Owlcation – Redheads: The Genetics of Hair Color

Facts – 70 Redhead Facts & Secrets You Never Knew

Ireland Calling – Vikings Or Celts – Where Does The Irish Red Hair Gene Originate?

Ginger Parrot – The Ancient History of Redheads and Ginger Hair

How to be a Redhead – Top 6 Most Powerful Redhead Women in History

The Dockyard – The Norse Origins Of The Red Hair Gene

Noi Group – Untangling The Myths Of Red Hair

Forward – History of Ginger Jews

Moment Magazine – The Biggest Jewish Genetic Myths of All Time

National Day – Redhead Appreciation Day

Livy, The History of Rome

Seneca, A New German Icon

Tacitus, Agricola

Tacitus, Germania