Why Are Europeans White? (E1)

The Puzzle: Northern Europeans are Uniquely Depigmented

“White,” of course, is a a social designation. The question really is, “Why are northern Europeans depigmented?” Here is a map of human skin tone. The natives of northern Europe are oddly light-skinned. They are paler than anyone else on earth.

Most people know that it has something to do with sunlight, UV, latitude, and vitamin D. Here is a map of solar UV at the surface taken from satellite. It matches the skin-tone map everywhere but Europe.

The closer you are to the equator, the darker your skin. This is because humans are extraordinarily sensitive to sunlight on the skin. Humans lack fur.

It Has Something to do With Solar UV and Oceans

UV rays produce vitamin D and reduce folate when they hit naked skin. And embryos are terribly vulnerable to both substances in the mother. When it comes to sunlight and skin tone, furless humans are balanced on a knife-blade.

Too much UV penetrating the skin (too pale-skinned under intense sunlight) increases Vitamin D but reduces folate. Lack of folate causes neural tube defects in the fetus, causing such congenital abnormalities as craniorachischisis, anencephalus, and spina bifida, leading to many miscarriages.

On the other hand, too little UV penetrating the skin (too dark-skinned under dim sunlight) increases folate but reduces vitamin D. Lack of vitamin D causes skeletal neonatal abnormalities (skull, chest, and leg malformations), rickets being the best known. Again, this causes miscarriages.

And so, humans adapt very quickly to solar UV. Prehistoric groups that migrated towards the equator got darker. Prehistoric groups that migrated away from the equator got lighter.

But this explanation fails for Europe. Northern Europeans are lighter than everyone to the south (Mediterraneans), to the east (Mongols and east-Asians), to the west (Native Americans across the Atlantic), and to the North (Inuit, Sammi, Chukchi, Aleut).

Clearly, there once was a factor at work in Europe other than dim sunlight.

Here is another map of skin tone. Again, the blob surrounding the Baltic Sea is like nothing else on the planet. That this pale population surrounds the Baltic gives the first hint. It must have something to do with the oceans.

Skin, Hair, and Eyes: Neoteny

Baltic depigmentation is not just in the skin. Here is a map of hair color. The pigment “melanin” colors hair as well as skin. Adult blondes are native only to the same unique region.




Children around the world are often blonde, but their hair darkens at puberty. So it is not just northern European adult skin that lacks pigment. It is also adult European hair.

The Baltic depigmentation is not just in the skin and hair. Here is a map of eye color. Melanin colors eyes, as well as skin and hair. Adults with blue eyes are native only to the same unique region.

(Babies around the world are often born with blue eyes, but their eyes darken within a few months.)

So it is not just northern European skin and hair that lack pigment. It is also northern European eyes. Skin, hair, eyes: adult European pigmentation resembles that of children elsewhere. This gives the second hint–neoteny.

When Did it Happen?

To solve the puzzle, find out when it happened. When did the inabitants of the Baltic region lose their melanin? It must have happened after 16 KYA (16 thousand years ago). The Baltic region was covered by ice before then and nobody lived there.

In fact, it happened after 13 KYA. Cave art from that time always shows normally pigmented people. Notice that in this painting from 13 KYA, the hunters are the same color as the deer.

It must have happened before 4.6 KYA because depigmented people first began to appear in art at that time. These Egyptian statues were painted in 2613 BC. They portray Prince Rahotep and his consort Nefret, of the Old Kingdom, early Fourth Dynasty. Notice that he is brown but she is pink.

And so, the next step in solving the puzzle is to ask, “What happened in Europe between 13 KYA and 4.6 KYA?”

What happened was the invention and spread of agriculture. Before 10 KYA people everywhere lived by hunting and gathering. Then, almost simultaneously, cereal growing was invented in four spots around the globe:

Iraq (wheat, barley, rye), China (rice), Nigeria (sorghum), and Mexico (corn or maize).

It is Connected With Eating Cereal

What does skin tone have to do with eating cereal? Even in darkness, humans get vitamin D from eating meat and fish. Otherwise they could never inhabit the arctic.

This USDA chart shows the vitamin D content of various foods. All meats have some vitamin D. Fish have very high amounts. But grains have no vitamin D at all.

People who eat grains do not get vitamin D from food; they must get it from sunlight.

This usually works out fine because grains grow only where it is warm. And this means only in latitudes with bright sunlight, with one exception.

People who live in low latitudes, where they can live off grains, get plenty of sunlight. People who live in dim sunlight cannot grow grains, and so they get vitamin D from the meat and fish that they eat.

The Gulf Stream is the Cause

The exception? There is only one spot on the planet where grains will grow despite sub-arctic sunlight.

It is where the warm waters of the Gulf Stream wash ashore. The Baltic is the only place on earth where ocean currents keep it warm enough to grow grain despite dim sunlight.

When the inhabitants of this region switched to grain about 6 KYA, they suddenly got insufficient vitamin D to survive. They had stopped eating mostly meat and fish in a place where sunlight was too dim to produce vitamin D in normally pigmented skin.

And so they adapted by retaining into adulthood the infantile trait of extreme paleness. Blonde hair and blue eyes were other infantile traits that were just swept along accidentally.

For the detailed text of this topic, complete with footnoted references, citations, and all the peer-reviewed material, visit The Paleo-Etiology of Human Skin Tone.

Click here for an animated YouTube version of this topic.

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Frank W. Sweet is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), an analysis of the nearly 300 appealed cases that determined Americans’ “racial” identity over the centuries. It is the most thorough study of the legal history of this topic yet published. He was accepted to Ph.D. candidacy in history with a minor in molecular anthropology at the University of Florida in 2003 and has completed all but his dissertation defense. He earned an M.A. in History from American Military University in 2001. He is also the author of several state park historical booklets and published historical essays. He was a member of the editorial board of the magazine Interracial Voice, and is a regular lecturer and panelist at historical and genealogical conferences. To send email, click here.

Other Backintyme sites: Essays on the U.S. Color Line Armed Citizens and the Law
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39 Responses to “Why Are Europeans White? (E1)”

  1. Rubarb Says:

    Very insightful thank you

  2. alex Says:


    They have to have gone through a pretty severe “genetic bottleneck” where they could really get little else than grain they’d grown. No bugs, etc for instance. Because when a person needs a vitamin etc., they really crave it and will eat even “icky” things to get it.

    And … white people “happened” less than 10,000 years ago, amazing. There were probably “light” people all along, a shining (haha) example being Japanese and Koreans, they get *very* white when they don’t get a lot of sun, but when they get some sun they brown right up. It’s one of the fascinating things about melanin, that if you have it, your skin is changeable, for instance, I’m a lot lighter in the winter than in the summer. And people with quite dark skin, if they’re used to Northern areas like say, Milwaukee, and take a vacation in say, Hawaii, and spend too much time in the sun right away, can get sun burned. The Neanderthals living in the Neander valley in what’s now Germany, were probably lightish-bronzy looking. About like me. But this theory accounts for the really light-skinned, blue-eyed, can’t-tan-at-all folks.

    If we talk openly and freely about stuff like this, maybe the stupid “color line” will go away into much needed historical obscurity.

  3. ishmael lover Says:

    And thus, civilization of agriculture, the blond people, begin to chase the civilization of hunters gatherers out of earth. Cain did kill Abel.

  4. JDC Says:

    “Notice that in this painting from 13 KYA, the hunters are the same color as the deer.”
    Uhh…that’s because the paint/pigment used for cave paintings was still in a monochromatic period.

  5. Marco Lopes Says:

    Hard to give any credibility to this after looking at the “colour distribution” map. The fact that Spain and Portugal, two white European countries show the same pigmentation as North Africa and Asia just shows the ignorance of the North American about other people.
    The reason that the people known in the US as “Latinos” have a slightly darker skin tone is due to the mingling of the Spanish colonizers with the native Americans. The European latin people don’t share the skin one characteristic with the American ones, and European latins include France and Italy as well as Spain and Portugal.
    Oddly enough, the Portuguese are often thought to be Italian rather than Spanish, when identified only by physical appearance.

    All this mistakes reflect the fact that there are a lot of Italian descendent in the US, thus causing people to know how they look like, but most of the Spanish speaker are central-American rather than Spanish, causing people to think the Spanish have a darker skin tone. Portugal, being a small, not very well known country, is often mistaken whit Spain.

  6. cacarr Says:

    Too compressed a time-frame; too wicked a selection pressure. There must have been a good percentage of whiteys prior to 6 KYA.

  7. john doe Says:

    but there’s no explanation as to why people closer to the equator bear facial features that are much more closer to their evolutionary forefathers, than the europeans?

  8. mista Says:

    @jon doe

    What the hell are you talking about?

  9. Noetic Jun Says:

    @john doe:

    Really, WTF? I hope you were baked out of your mind while writing your comment.

  10. Ted Says:


    Dont start that ‘civilisation’ crap. Darker skinned people had civilisation 1000s years before the ‘blonde blue eyed’ civilisation. Infact this is the last place on earth to be ‘civilisedededed’..

  11. Thought Says:

    Why then would people continue to be depigmented when they migrated to other areas or their diet switched to include more meats and fish?

  12. Admin Says:

    @Marco Lopes: You wrote: “Hard to give any credibility to this after looking at the colour distribution map. The fact that Spain and Portugal, two white European countries show the same pigmentation as North Africa and Asia just shows the ignorance of the North American about other people.”

    Actually, the first modern scholar to study world-wide pigmentation differences was Italian scientist Renato Biasutti in 1939. He first published the above map in _Razze e i Popoli Della Terra_ Vol. I. (Torino: Unione Tipografico, 1941). The map has since been replicated and confirmed many times. Virtually identical maps have been published by Rober Jurmain, Harry Nelson, Lynn Kilgore, and Wenda Trevathan in _Introduction to Physical Anthropology_ 8th ed. (Belmont CA: Wadsworth, 2000); by C. Loring Brace and Ashley Montagu in _Evolution in an Anthropological View_ (Lanham MD: AltaMira, 2000); and finally by the most eminent genetic anthropologist of them all (also Italian) Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, who with Paolo Menozzi, and Alberto Piazza first published the version used above (giving credit to Biasutti) in _The History and Geography of Human Genes_ Translated by Sarah Thorne (Princeton: Princeton University, 1994). — Frank W Sweet

  13. d Says:

    Gulf stream was my immediate guess after I saw the first map – you can actually see the correlation between where the Gulf Stream covers the land and the skin tone.
    My second guess was that it has something to do with Baltic Sea salinity. It least saline sea in the world, just around 6‰. You can actually drink it and survive as it is less saline than most sports drinks!

  14. Admin Says:

    @john doe: You asked: “But there’s no explanation as to why people closer to the equator bear facial features that are much more closer to their evolutionary forefathers, than the europeans?”

    Sorry, no. The problem is that when you quantify facial features to make distinctions objective (the way U.S. forensic anthopologists determine the “race” of a skeleton), you wind up classifying much of northern sub-Saharan Africa, from Burkina Faso to Somalia, as “Caucasoid” and much of southern sub-Saharan Africa as “Capoid” (Asian looking).

    Click here to see the most comprehensive map of “facial features”. This map is from Carleton Stevens Coon, _The Origin of Races_ (New York: Knopf, 1962).

    That last group (so-called “Capoid”), are the Khoi-San of Botswana. Genetically speaking they are the most ancient humans alive today.

    Negroid (or Congoid) skulls are found mostly in an east-to-west strip of central Africa. The region happens to be the origin of most transatlantic slaves, hence the erroneous New World notion than all Africans look like that. But they are the genetic descendants of the Asian-looking Khoi-San (as is everyone else). — Frank W Sweet

  15. Joe Says:


    And southern Iberia was colonized by the Moors for centuries, hence the genetic similarity between southern Iberians and North Africans. I’m afraid the ignorant one here is you.

  16. Sakari Says:

    Intersting piece……but one question arose in my mind. I understand why some people are browner and some people are paler – but what was the evolutionary pressure that gave rise to ‘coppery’ tones in Native Americans, and ‘golden’ tones amongst some Orientals?

  17. Christoph Engelhardt Says:

    mind => blown

    Awesome insight!

  18. Michael Dillon Says:

    Close but not quite. First of all, the images are meaningless. Monochromatic cave paintings tell us nothing, and the Egyptian pictures are not from Europe.

    In fact, the Europeans with pale skin are also not from Europe. They are Asians who migrated into Europe starting some 12,000 years ago when the icecap covering Europe started to receded. Why was there an icecap over Europe? That Gulf Stream has been around for a long time, and during the Ice Age it brought lots of warm moist air to Europe where the moisture promptly fell as snow and piled up year after year until there was a huge ice cap. During the Ice Age the wind didn’t just carry the snow to Europe and stop. It kept blowing out into Asia as a cold moist wind carrying moisture from evaporating/sublimating snow and ice. The result was a region along the edge of the ice cap which was permanently misty, foggy and cloudy. Norse myths call that land Ginungagap and it was populated by the Frost Giants. These are the people who turned pale and who eventually migrated into Scandinavia and the Baltic countries where people today are still taller than the average European. Note that not all pale people are Caucasians which is the same racial group that includes the peoples of India including the very dark brown Tamils. Many pale people are Orientals, a group which not only includes the people living in the sea ports frequented by European sailing ships, but also includes many northern Asians who have pale skin. In fact the story of Snow White probably refers to an Oriental woman because the description “hair as black as coal, lips as red as roses and skin as pale as snow” fits many oriental people living in the snowy north of Asia.

  19. Sam Cogar Says:

    The Out of Africa Theory of human evolution begs the question of:

    Which came first, the hairless hominoid or the black skinned hominoid?

  20. rashmach Says:

    JDC if you go through the actual paper (http://essays.backintyme.com/item/4), it says “The hunting scene above, one of many examples showing dark-brown bowmen shooting medium-brown deer, was painted in what is now France fifteen to thirteen millennia ago.”

  21. Admin Says:

    @rashmach: You wrote: “JDC if you go through the actual paper (http://essays.backintyme.com/item/4), ….”
    To be honest, I agree with JDC that it is a weak argument. Not that 13KYA was a one-color period. Many contemporary Aurignacian cave paintings use a mix of browns, reds, and blacks. But the artist of this particular painting apparently used only one pigment. Stronger evidence would be a painting with more colors.

    @alex, sakari: For convergent east Asian depigmentation, I recommend http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17182896 .
    For “coppery” amerind pigmentation, I suggest http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22198722 .

    @Sam Cogar: Most think that dark skin came first. See http://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/19/science/why-humans-and-their-fur-parted-ways.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

  22. The Other John Doe Says:

    I think it will be a matter of time and then the sun age sets in and everything is dark as charcoal then all the bias shall end.If you doubt me,ask Dr. Leakey.

    @John Doe Lol.

  23. JD Says:

    Cool explanation! But why write something supposedly of fact in this form? Can’t you give the answer in the beginning in sceintific writing form, then back it up with the rest of the piece?

  24. zygotic Says:

    I’m pink. And African.
    You’re daft as a brush.

  25. hawat Says:

    Sorry, but this “explanation” just cant be true. It`s logical, almost acceptable but then… “Most white” nations in the region are slavic and nordic – these two ethnic groups start to emerge into this region 2k for nordic nad 1,5k yeas ago for slaves, and we know that they come from “somewhere” on the est.

  26. recroad Says:

    TL;DNR: Europeans are white because they switched to grain and stopped eating meat/fish.

  27. Norwegian Says:

    A whiter skin tone is a result of less melotonin. Less stimuli from the sun = less melotonin. At no time in history did ANY of the sea countries stop eating fish. Fish has been caught an eaten since people first set foot on the continent.
    Get a grip.

  28. GeneticHistory Says:

    This post ignores the role Neanderthal genes played in developing the “Nordic” look.

    Science and Nature have published research showing strong evidence of interbreeding between Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens in Europe and Western Asia. Prevailing research also indicates that Neanderthals were predominantly fair-skinned and blue-eyed with reddish-hair. These Neanderthal genetic traits are likely the originating factor for these traits and the traits became dominant in the Nordic region through evolution when coupled with the above-mentioned environmental factors. In other regions, Neanderthal traits were not beneficial and their expressions were dominated by genes more useful to non-Nordic environments.


  29. French Says:

    The article states the population “had stopped eating mostly meat and fish”. Of course they didn’t stop fishing :) But they tried this new thing we now call agriculture, it permitted them to outgrow a “b” population (if there was) that would have based its diet on fish. Also by forcing them to stay at one place for a longer time it helped made them more “specific”.

    By the way in France, people having their roots in the south of the country have a darker skin than those who come from the north. So I’m not surprised by the map.

  30. Freder Says:

    I once saw in Ghana village young boys with very huge eyes, a bit asian looking, actually like the phoeniciens.

    The reasons why there is blond hair in Africa is of course muslim slave trade.

  31. Userul lui Pe?te Says:

    @john doe: Conditions closer to the equator haven’t change much. It’s just expected to see fewer differences there compared with other groups which had to adapt to new and very different environments.

  32. barny salzburg Says:

    “The natives of northern Europe are oddly light-skinned. They are paler than anyone else on earth.”

    Why would it be odd that one area has the most pale people on earth? Unless all skin tones are equal, then *some group* is going to have to be the palest, and some other group will have to be the darkest.

  33. Admin Says:

    @barny salzburg: You wrote: “Why would it be odd that one area has the most pale people on earth? Unless all skin tones are equal, then *some group* is going to have to be the palest, and some other group will have to be the darkest.”

    LOL! Very true. I guess the word “oddly” was because most people link skin-tone to latitude. But northern Euros are paler than folks north, east, south, and west of them.

  34. "Normal" Says:

    “Cave art from that time always shows normally pigmented people.”


  35. Zla'od Says:

    “Blonde hair and blue eyes were other infantile traits that were just swept along accidentally.”

    What–does eye color normally change with puberty?! Since some 90 percent of the world’s people have brown eyes, it is easier to see a shift to blue as something more along the lines of albinism.

  36. I'm sorry Says:

    I think there are a few incorrect misconceptions in your essay. ;)

    You’re saying that the people arround the baltic suddenly stopped eating meat and fish, but not completelly in fact, it has remained an important part of the local food cultures.

    But on the other side, the baltic has also been previously a lake disconnected with the sea, so it could have to do with the absence of some species of sea fish in the alimentation.

    Also, skin depigments itself automaticly because melanin essentially stops sunrays to protect the body’s organs and the skin. Because the body craves for D vitamin, depigmentation is necessary to increase D vitamin production from the low levels of UVs and sunlight available at these lattitudes.

  37. hollybake Says:

    Absolutely fascinating article! What an interesting perspective! It is great reading the dialog here from those who have a different perspective but were also positive and courteous in their comments.

  38. towelhead Says:

    Farming was invented in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East about 13,000 years ago. 10,000 years ago there were no farmers in Europe, only hunters and gatherers who could not digest cow’s milk because they did not tolerate lactose. 9000 years ago Middle Eastern farmers and milk drinkers conquered Turkey and then, over the course of two thousand years they conquered Europe and completely exterminated original European population. The conquerors were speaking language related to the Basque language. I call them the Basques.

    White race has very unusual origins. The ancestors of white people had brown eyes, rather dark skin, and severe vitamin D deficiency because they lived in a place where there were no fish and little sunlight (semi-desert north of Black Sea and Caspian Sea). About 8000 years ago a genetic mutation in one of those people produced white skin and blue eyes. It was very beneficial mutation because it enabled vitamin D synthesis in their white skin.

    About 6000 years ago the same white people domesticated horse and became invincible warriors. About 4000 years ago the white horsemen conquered nearly all the world, including Europe, and merged with the European Basques.


    White skin and blue eyes: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/scienceandtechnology/science/sciencenews/3323607/Blue-eyes-result-of-ancient-genetic-'mutation‘.html

    How Middle Eastern milk drinkers conquered Europe: http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,723310,00.html

  39. adam james Says:

    same question ,every different species of animal ,of the same type ,different color anyplace
    same answer mutation and natural selection + outside forces weather etc = outcome
    Do scientists just ask the same question of every thing to push up there funding- or cant they actually string together facts due to the fact they spent so long parroting there tutors – this should be the real question