Skin and hair pigmentation variation in Island Melanesia

Heather L. Norton, Jonathan S. Friedlaender, D. Andrew Merriwether, George Koki, Charles S. Mgone, Mark D. Shriver

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


Skin and hair pigmentation are two of the most easily visible examples of human phenotypic variation. Selection-based explanations for pigmentation variation in humans have focused on the relationship between melanin and ultraviolet radiation, which is largely dependent on latitude. In this study, skin and hair pigmentation were measured as the melanin (M) index, using narrow-band reflectance spectroscopy for 1,135 individuals from Island Melanesia. Overall, the results show remarkable pigmentation variation, given the small geographic region surveyed. This variation is discussed in terms of differences between males and females, among islands, and among neighborhoods within those islands. The relationship of pigmentation to age, latitude, and longitude is also examined. We found that male skin pigmentation was significantly darker than females in 5 of 6 islands examined. Hair pigmentation showed a negative, but weak, correlation with age, while skin pigmentation showed a positive, but also weak, correlation with age. Skin and hair pigmentation varied significantly between islands as well as between neighborhoods within those islands. Bougainvilleans showed significantly darker skin than individuals from any other island considered, and are darker than a previously described African-American population. These findings are discussed in relation to prevailing hypotheses about the role of natural selection in shaping pigmentation variation in the human species, as well as the role of demographic processes such as admixture and drift in Island Melanesia.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)254-268
Number of pages15
JournalAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2006

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Anatomy
  • Anthropology


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