When you think about race, you probably think about skin color. Although the shade of your skin might seem to be the most variable trait in regards to race, we know surprisingly little about it. That’s especially true when it comes to Africa and the wide variety of skin tones found there.
Now, a landmark new study has seen scientists investigate the genetics of skin color among people in Africa. Their study, published in the journal Science, gathered genetic information from over 1,500 people and data on skin color from over 2,000 people from some of the most diverse regions of the African continent, making it the largest study of its kind to date.
According to the researchers, their findings challenge the idea of a biological concept of race.
“When people think of skin color in Africa most would think of darker skin, but we show that within Africa there is a huge amount of variation, ranging from skin as light as some Asians to the darkest skin on a global level and everything in between,” said Sarah Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania, in a statement.
Their analysis found eight genetic variants within the human genome that are associated with skin pigmentation. They discovered that most variants associated with light skin (now most common in Europeans) and dark skin appear to have both originated in Africa. Furthermore, the oldest version of these variants in most cases was associated with lighter skin, suggesting that moderately pigmented skin evolved before darkly pigmented skin.
Most of these genetic variants associated with light and dark pigmentation appear to have emerged more than 300,000 years ago – a time before the origin of modern humans. Some variants even emerged up to 1 million years ago.