The colours of humanity: The evolution of pigmentation in the human lineage

Nina G. Jablonski, George Chaplin

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

82 Scopus citations


Humans are a colourful species of primate, with human skin, hair and eye coloration having been influenced by a great variety of evolutionary forces throughout prehistory. Functionally naked skin has been the physical interface between the physical environment and the human body for most of the history of the genus Homo, and hence skin coloration has been under intense natural selection. From an original condition of protective, dark, eumelanin-enriched coloration in early tropical-dwelling Homo and Homo sapiens, loss of melanin pigmentation occurred under natural selection as Homo sapiens dispersed into non-tropical latitudes of Africa and Eurasia. Genes responsible for skin, hair and eye coloration appear to have been affected significantly by population bottlenecks in the course of Homo sapiens dispersals. Because specific skin colour phenotypes can be created by different combinations of skin colour–associated genetic markers, loss of genetic variability due to genetic drift appears to have had negligible effects on the highly redundant genetic ‘palette’ for the skin colour. This does not appear to have been the case for hair and eye coloration, however, and these traits appear to have been more strongly influenced by genetic drift and, possibly, sexual selection. This article is part of the themed issue ‘Animal coloration: production, perception, function and application’.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20160349
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1724
StatePublished - 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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