Stone Age Spaniard had blue eyes, dark skin

Genetics of 7,000-year-old skeleton suggests pale skin came later

THE BARE BONES  DNA from the skeleton of a Stone Age hunter-gatherer from northwestern Spain suggests blue eyes evolved before light skin did.


 J.M. Vidal Encina

Blue eyes may have evolved before blond hair and pale skin, a genetic analysis of a 7,000-year-old Spanish skeleton suggests.

The Stone Age skeleton of a hunter-gatherer was found in 2006 in a cave at the La Braña-Arintero archaeological site in northwestern Spain. DNA from one of the skeleton’s teeth shows that the man, called La Braña 1, is genetically different from most present-day Europeans, Carles Lalueza-Fox of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona and colleagues report January 26 in Nature.

The hunter-gatherer was lactose intolerant and carried few copies of genes involved in breaking down starch. Those findings are further evidence that the ability to digest milk and starch probably evolved after the advent of agriculture.

La Braña 1’s eyes were blue (or at least not brown), but his hair and skin were dark, the researchers deciphered from the skeleton’s pigment genes. The finding indicates that light-colored skin wasn’t the norm everywhere in Europe by the Stone Age, and that eye color changed before skin pigmentation did.

A genetic analysis of a 7,000-year-old Spanish hunter-gatherer’s skeleton indicates that the man, shown in an artist’s illustration, had blue eyes and dark skin and hair. Skull: J.M. Vidal Encina; Illustration: CSIC

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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