FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Where Did White People Come From?

Last month the Guardian reported that a team of scientists studying early homo sapiens in Europe had extracted DNA from the tooth of a male hunter-gatherer who lived in what is now the Asturias region of northern Spain around 7000 years ago. They drew some surprising conclusions from the analysis. The man was dark-skinned but blue-eyed. His nearest DNA matches with contemporary ethnicities are with Swedes and Finns, among the palest of peoples.

Scholars had earlier argued that blue eyes had appeared as the result of a genetic mutation somewhere between 10,000 and 6000 years ago. (Before that all humans had brown eyes.) But until a few years ago most supposed that the appearance of white skin had occurred much earlier. The European gene pool with its light complexion was supposed to have decisively “split off” from the (also light-skinned) East Asian gene pool by around 50,000 years ago, after which homo sapiens first appeared in Europe, then in China.

But this timeline may need to be adjusted. It now looks like European whiteness may have appeared much more recently. Maybe there were no “white people” in Europe as recently as 7000 years ago, during the lifetime of the blue-eyed hunter-gatherer, whom the Guardian article calls “swarthy.”

The new research supports the theory that the spread of agriculture in Europe beginning (only) around 6,000 years ago favored the survival of people with a genetic mutation producing fair skin. The new grain-based diet lacked Vitamin D, vital to teeth, bone health, and to the immune system. Meanwhile humans inhabiting northern climates received less sun exposure than people in most parts of Africa. Light skin absorbs Vitamin D from the sun much more rapidly than dark skin and so becomes a real advantage from certain latitude, according to the theory.

The recent report particularly interests me, since my own DNA test, supported by family records, shows me to be of 61% Scandinavian and 3% Finnish ancestry. My mother was half-Norwegian, half-Swedish and my father’s mother half-Norwegian too. (I’m not sure where the Finnish comes in, but looking at the map and thinking about Scandinavian history it does makes sense.) My DNA probably pretty closely matches that of the blue-eyed people living around the Bay of Biscay 7000 years ago.

It’s somehow stimulating to think of distant forefathers having eyes like mine but very different skin. Also stimulating to think that my blue eyes are more deeply rooted in my genetic history than my white skin. I would have thought the opposite.

7000 years ago is of course a very long time back—over 2000 years before the construction of Stonehenge or the first Egyptian pyramids. It’s before class division, the state, written language. Agriculture was just beginning in the Nile River Valley and Yellow River Valley of China, as these proto-Scandinavians in the cultural backwater of Europe went about their hunting and gathering lifestyle. It’s millennia before historical European peoples such as the Greeks, Italians, Celts, Germans, and Slavs appeared even in the archeological record. But again, it’s much later than had been supposed.

By around 4000 BCE what is now Sweden was linked to Spain by the agrarian Funnelbeaker culture thought to have arrived from the south. This culture may have been overrun by an Indo-European language-speaking people sometime before 2000 BCE. Anyway there are indications that the inhabitants of the Scandinavian Peninsula for the most part descend from people who have been there for a long, long time. If they in turn, along with the Celts, Germans etc., descend from the blue-eyed hunter-gatherers of Asturias—still dark as of 7000 years ago—we have to rethink the origins of whiteness, do we not?

To state the obvious: Europeans (“Caucasians”) are not the only light-skinned people on the planet. My Japanese wife places her forearm next to mine and says, “See? They’re the same.” And our arms are, in fact, similar, at least color-wise. Europeans, from their first contacts with Japanese in the 1540s to at least the early 1800s, routinely described Japanese as well as Chinese as “white.” Marco Polo in the late 1200s had described the Chinese as “white.” (This category, based on mere empirical observation, gradually gave way by ca. 1800 to a category of “tawny” or “yellow”—understood to be intermediate, ranked just under white, in a racial hierarchy with white at the top and black on the bottom. This concept associated with “Social Darwinism” was a prime ideological underpinning of colonialism and slavery and remains an underpinning of racism and imperialism.)

East Asians like Europeans possess a genetic mutation that gives them light skin. Did they have theirs thousands of years before my Nordic ancestors?

I understand from my ancestry.com saliva test that I am 99% European. My geographic results are: 61% Scandinavia, 3% Finland/Northwest Russia, 13% “Great Britain” (much of which I know to be Scots-Irish), 3% Irish, 9% “Europe West,” 9% “Iberian Peninsula,” 1% “Italy/Greece” and another 1% “West Asia.” I’m not sure that the ancestors of any of these peoples in the listed regions were “white” 7000 years ago.

But maybe my wife’s ancestors were. The homo sapiens who lived in the Yellow River Valley in northern China 7000 years ago, members of this Yangshao culture just beginning to invent agriculture, are thought to have been “anatomically Chinese.” Their perhaps not-so-distant cousins in Japan, the Jomon people, in Japan from ca. 14,000 years ago, and the Yayoi people who supplied the greater proportion of the Japanese gene pool, are thought to have been light-skinned.

If these people were indeed light-skinned, they may have been the first “whites” on the planet. Far from the imagined centers of whiteness, such as the Caucasus, Scandinavia or Germany, light-skinned people in East Asia may have been proliferating—and repeatedly wandering into Europe across the vast Russian steppes. Stanford University geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza suggests that two-thirds of European genes come from Asia, one-third from Africa.

When and where did people first become white? It’s not clear. But it happened fairly recently, and not necessarily in Europe. Why does it matter? Because color-based notions of racial hierarchy continue to plague us, or at least haunt our sub-consciousnesses. They reside in the North American mind, there available to exploit whenever the regime decides it’s time to bomb another Asian or African country, bring “our” white-based civilization to the natives and depict any subsequent unpleasantness as a version of the “White Man’s Burden.” (Listen to Congressmen whine about how Afghans and Iraqis have been so little appreciative of the massive U.S. sacrifices required for their conquest!) Understanding and demystifying the real origins of whiteness can only help us get over it.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu

More articles by:

Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

April 25, 2018
Stanley L. Cohen
Selective Outrage
Dan Kovalik
The Empire Turns Its Sights on Nicaragua – Again!
Joseph Essertier
The Abductees of Japan and Korea
Ramzy Baroud
The Ghost of Herut: Einstein on Israel, 70 Years Ago
W. T. Whitney
Imprisoned FARC Leader Faces Extradition: Still No Peace in Colombia
Manuel E. Yepe
Washington’s Attack on Syria Was a Mockery of the World
John White
My Silent Pain for Toronto and the World
Dean Baker
Bad Projections: the Federal Reserve, the IMF and Unemployment
David Schultz
Why Donald Trump Should Not be Allowed to Pardon Michael Cohen, His Friends, or Family Members
Mel Gurtov
Will Abe Shinzo “Make Japan Great Again”?
Binoy Kampmark
Enoch Powell: Blood Speeches and Anniversaries
Frank Scott
Weapons and Walls
April 24, 2018
Carl Boggs
Russia and the War Party
William A. Cohn
Carnage Unleashed: the Pentagon and the AUMF
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
The Racist Culture of Canadian Hockey
María Julia Bertomeu
On Angers, Disgusts and Nauseas
Nick Pemberton
How To Buy A Seat In Congress 101
Ron Jacobs
Resisting the Military-Now More Than Ever
Paul Bentley
A Velvet Revolution Turns Bloody? Ten Dead in Toronto
Sonali Kolhatkar
The Left, Syria and Fake News
Manuel E. Yepe
The Confirmation of Democracy in Cuba
Peter Montgomery
Christian Nationalism: Good for Politicians, Bad for America and the World
Ted Rall
Bad Drones
Jill Richardson
The Latest Attack on Food Stamps
Andrew Stewart
What Kind of Unionism is This?
Ellen Brown
Fox in the Hen House: Why Interest Rates Are Rising
April 23, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
In Middle East Wars It Pays to be Skeptical
Thomas Knapp
Just When You Thought “Russiagate” Couldn’t Get Any Sillier …
Gregory Barrett
The Moral Mask
Robert Hunziker
Chemical Madness!
David Swanson
Senator Tim Kaine’s Brief Run-In With the Law
Dave Lindorff
Starbucks Has a Racism Problem
Uri Avnery
The Great Day
Nyla Ali Khan
Girls Reduced to Being Repositories of Communal and Religious Identities in Kashmir
Ted Rall
Stop Letting Trump Distract You From Your Wants and Needs
Steve Klinger
The Cautionary Tale of Donald J. Trump
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
Conflict Over the Future of the Planet
Cesar Chelala
Gideon Levy: A Voice of Sanity from Israel
Weekend Edition
April 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Ruling Class Operatives Say the Darndest Things: On Devils Known and Not
Conn Hallinan
The Great Game Comes to Syria
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Mother of War
Andrew Levine
“How Come?” Questions
Doug Noble
A Tale of Two Atrocities: Douma and Gaza
Kenneth Surin
The Blight of Ukania
Howard Lisnoff
How James Comey Became the Strange New Hero of the Liberals
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail