The Viking Origins of the Red Hair Gene
For some time there has been quite a debate among scholars regarding the origins of the red hair gene. According to some, the gene for red hair is inherent to the Celts, while others claim it to be a genetic trait specific to the Norsemen, being brought to the British Isles during the Viking Age. There is also a third category of historians and scientists who agree on a common Celto-Germanic genetic trait, rather than a separate origin for the gene.
What are the causes behind red hair?
Scientifically speaking, red hair is the result of a recessive genetic trait which has been caused by a series of mutations in the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R), a gene which is located on chromosome 16. Being a recessive genetic trait means that both parents must cary the gene in order for their children to be born red haired.
An interesting aspect of this gene is that there are far many carriers of it than people who are actually born with red hair. For instance, Scotland — which is reputed for being one of the homelands of the red hair gene alongside Ireland and Wales — has a rate of 13% of its total population with red hair, as opposed to roughly 40% who actually carry the gene. The red hair gene is very rare worldwide, with only 0.6% of the world population sharing this genetic trait.
Where is red hair most common?
The highest rate of frequency for red hair can be traced to Ireland (ranging from minimum 10% to maximum 30%), Scotland (ranging from minimum 10% to maximum 25%), Wales (ranging from minimum 10% to maximum 15%). As such, one might conclude that the Celts are actually responsible for the red hair gene.
Nonetheless, right next to Wales is southwest Norway, where red hair is quite common. According to Professor Donna Heddle, the director for both the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Centre for Nordic Studies and a leading expert on the Norse, the red hair gene from Scotland is actually part of the Norsemen’s heritage.
Did the Vikings actually bring the red hair gene to the British Isles?
Professor Donna Heddle also explained that the perception according to which the invading Viking raiders of the British Isles were blond is nothing more but a mere misconception. According to the same theory, the Norsemen were likely red headed. This may be true, at least in part. Not that many Viking warriors were naturally blond, indeed. In fact, blond hair was very much sought after in Viking Age Scandinavia and many Norsemen dyed their hair blond.
On this note Professor Donna Heddle stated for The Scotsman:
‘The perception that the Norse were blond is nothing more than a prevalent myth. Genetically speaking, the chances of them having blond hair weren’t that likely. The chances are that they would have had red hair. Interestingly, if you look at where red hair occurs in the world you can almost map it to Viking trading routes.’
And indeed, this actually holds up to be true even to these days. For example, if we are to take a look at the areas in Ireland where the Norsemen settled, we can also see the highest concentration of red haired Irish people. The Viking warriors who settled coastal parts of both Scotland and Ireland were mainly of Norwegian descent (shortly followed by Danish Vikings as well).
Furthermore, it has been recently discovered that southwest Norway may well be the actual place of origin for the red hair as the gene was successfully linked to the paternal Y-DNA haplogroup R1b-L21, which includes one of its subclades defined as R1b-M222 — one that is very common for both northwestern Ireland and Scotland.
A famous Norwegian Viking by the name Eiríkr Þorvaldsson (Erik Thorvaldsson) who was born born in the Jæren district of Rogaland, southern Norway in mid 10th century subsequently got renowned as Erik the Red because of the colour of his hair and beard. He is recounted in the Icelandic sagas as the first Norse settler in Greenland.
In conclusion, analysing the maps above can hopefully solve the mystery concerning the true origins of the red hair gene and possibly debunk a few myths regarding the Norse culture and the Viking Age in general.
Documentation sources and external links:
- Vikings Responsible for Scottish Red Hair Gene? on www.ecanadanow.com
- Expert argues Vikings carried redhead gene to Scotland on www.scotsman.com
- The genetic causes, ethnic origins and history of red hair on www.eupedia.com
- Vikings or Celts bring red hair gene? on www.ireland-calling.com
- What Vikings really looked like on www.sciencenordic.com
- Top 10 Misconceptions About The Vikings on www.listverse.com
- Facts and Myths About Red Hair on www.gingerparrot.co.uk
- Red hair on www.wikipedia.org (in English)