The original redhead

September 25, 2008 at 2:00 am 3 comments

I have had reddish hair all my life. It is (shall we say) somewhat colour-enhanced now but back when I was a teenager, I had reddish blonde hair. More on the auburn hued side than blonde. I’ve always loved red hair, particularly titian coloured. I can’t imagine having black hair – although I like it. And blonde hair, well sorry girls (and guys) I find it vapid, dull, lacklustre. At least people can’t say to me that I’m having a “blonde moment”.

I’ve had comments hurled at me from time to time like “carrot top” or people assume that I have a fiery temper because of the reddish tinge (actually, I don’t have much of a temper at all). Fabulous red hair is caused by recessive genes and apparently, only 1-2% of the human population has this colour hair. Well, I’m awfully glad to be in that minority as I like to be different! So it’s the rarest natural hair colour. Red heads usually have pale skin (yep, tick I have that), freckles (nope, not really) and a sensitivity to ultra-violet light (yep, tick). In Wales, where my dad was from, up to 10% of the population are ginger heads.  When I visited the Samburu in Kenya years ago on a safari trip, they wanted to touch my hair. They braid their hair and colour it with red ochre so guess they thought I was doing the same. A popular myth is that redheads will become extinct, kaput – possibly by 2060 –  because of global intermingling, which broadens the base of potential partners.  No more gingers, no more carrot tops. Redheads on the endangered species list!

It only takes one parent with the recessive genes to produce a ginger-haired baby. If two parents have the recessive genes, then it’s double red trouble. So yes, global intermingling could reduce the gene pool as two redheads are less likely to meet each other. Red hair might become less common. The prediction is that redheads will fall from the current 1 in 8 in Scotland to 1 in 640,000.

Perhaps I have another thing to worry about. Blue eyes are on the way out. Apparently, around half of the US population born at the beginning of the 20th Century had blue eyes. By the middle of the 20th Century, only a third of the population had blue eyes. And now? Only 1 in 6 Americans have blue eyes. Again, it’s all to do with intermingling. Blue eyed immigrants to the US (mainly from Western Europe) married each other but by mid-20th Century, and with the influx of immigrants from Asia and Latin America, there was a wider genetic pool from which to select a potential partner.

But don’t despair! The ginger-headed blue-eyed person can be rescued from the brink of extinction!  The original redhead has been found through ancient DNA. I must digress at this point and tell you that I can literally spend hours contemplating ancient people. Okay, my undergrad degree is in History, so I have a natural inclination to contemplete old stuff. But I often ponder things like:

  • before the arrival of knock-out drugs, how on earth did people put up with the pain of the nerve/root  dying off in teeth?
  • what kind of games did kids play in say 900 AD?
  • what were the Sumerian fashions like?
  • what kind of make-up did women wear in say Carthage? did they know about lip gloss?!!

And the grand question: how odd-looking did Neanderthals look? Neanderthals co-existed with humans until they went kaput around 45,000 years ago. I’ve always felt sorry for our ancient cousin, Homo neanderthalensis. When we use the word “Neanderthal” to describe someone it usually carries with it connotations of stupidity, brutishness and sloping foreheads (mind you, I reckon I’ve worked with a few Neanderthals!)  But Neanderthal man was surprisingly innovative and whatever snuffed them out in the Middle Palaeolithic period is unknown. Wonder what it would have been like for a Neanderthal to come face to face with a homo sapien?  Did they intermingle or keep to themselves because they were largely outnumbered by humans?

We probably have an image of a Neanderthal as being squat and “ape-like” like this picture:

But scientists, using DNA from 43,000 year old bones, have discovered that some Neanderthals had red hair, pale skin and freckles! The first model of a Neanderthal has been created based on DNA evidence and shows the very human face of a woman, christened Wilma (after the Flintstones character). Here she is:

Wilma appears on the cover of the October 2008 issue of National Geographic (hey, the original red-headed covergirl!).

Assuming someday scientists can extract ancient DNA and recreate Neanderthals – maybe we could save homo sapiens from extinction (given the utter stupidity of modern humans, we’ll probably snuff it); or repopulate the Earth with Neanderthals (who toughed out an Ice Age so they might be hardy enough to tough out global warming); and twig the recessive red-hair genes so all Neanderthals have glorious titian coloured hair!

So redheads of the world unite! Neanderthals may yet save us.

Image credits: National Geographic; Wikipedia


Entry filed under: Archaeology, History, Science. Tags: , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Stef  |  March 8, 2009 at 6:16 am

    I was born a redhead, but didn’t get to keep it too long. I’ve been a brunette as long as I can remember. I thought one of my sons was going to be a redhead when he finally got hair, but he turned out to be blonde, then light brown.

    For years I dyed my hair red, and I liked the way it looked, but not all the work and money to maintain it. So, two years ago, I decided not to dye it anymore. What I have now is dark brown hair with a lot of grey… and I’ve earned every single one of those grey hairs!

  • 2. Leck  |  June 7, 2009 at 3:13 am

    dose copper hair count as red hair??

  • 3. SapientWolf  |  December 22, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    I’m pretty sure we ate all the Neanderthals.


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