There’s no doubt about it: redheads are rare and make up less than 2% of the population. While the “ginger gene” might feel uncommon, and some may even say we’re going extinct, redheads have actually been around for about 10 million years, scientists say. How do we know this? Well, scientists recently found the pigment that produces ginger coloration (phaeomelanin) in some pretty old fossils.
A little back story: phaeomelanin is a type of melanin, a pigment responsible for the color of hair, skin, and eyes in humans and other animals. It is one of the two types of melanin found in mammals, birds, and reptiles. Phaeomelanin is responsible for red and yellow colors and is found in varying amounts in the hair and skin of individuals. It’s one of the two primary types of melanin, the other being eumelanin, which is responsible for brown and black colors. The combination and balance of these two types of melanin determine an individual’s overall hair and skin color.
To sum it up: those with phaeomelanin have lighter-pigmented hair and skin, like redheads and blondes. Those with eumelanin have darker hair and skin that tans more easily like those with black or brown hair.
The team, led by researchers at University College Cork and reported by DailyMail, performed lab experiments on black, ginger and white bird feathers to track phaeomelanin pigments. They then applied their results to the fossils of Pelophylax pueyoi, an extinct species of large frog, confirming that high concentrations of the pigment were present. Dr Tiffany Slater said, “This finding is so exciting because it puts palaeontologists in a better place to detect different melanin pigments in many more fossils. This will paint a more accurate picture of ancient animal colour and will answer important questions about the evolution of colours in animals.”
You might be wondering, are these human fossils from 10 million years ago? No, but the fact that this phaeomelanin existed so long ago means it could also have existed in the earliest of humans. Red hair in humans can be traced back 50 thousand years to Asia, and several thousand years to Ireland, Scotland, and Scandinavia.
Red hair has been around a long time, which is just proof that we aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and our redhead roots may trace back even further than we know.
Rock it like a Redhead!