The evolution of human skin pigmentation involved the interactions of genetic, environmental, and cultural variables
Pigment Cell Melanoma Res. 2021 Apr 7. doi: 10.1111/pcmr.12976
Nina G Jablonski 1
The primary biological role of human skin pigmentation is as a mediator of penetration of ultraviolet radiation (UVR) into the deep layers of skin and the cutaneous circulation. Since the origin of Homo sapiens, dark, protective constitutive pigmentation and strong tanning abilities have been favored under conditions of high UVR, and represent the baseline condition for modern humans. The evolution of partly depigmented skin and variable tanning abilities has occurred multiple times in prehistory, as populations have dispersed into environments with lower and more seasonal UVR regimes, with unique complements of genes and cultural practices. The evolution of extremes of dark pigmentation and depigmentation has been rare and occurred only under conditions of extremely high or low environmental UVR, promoted by positive selection on variant pigmentation genes followed by limited gene flow. Over time, the evolution of human skin pigmentation has been influenced by the nature and course of human dispersals and modifications of cultural practices, which have modified the nature and actions of skin pigmentation genes. Throughout most of prehistory and history, the evolution of human skin pigmentation has been a contingent and non-deterministic process.