ScotlandsDNA believes that everyone who carries one of 3 variants of the red-hair gene is a direct descendant of the first redhead ever to have it – two variants originating in West Asia around 70,000 years ago, and a younger variant originating in Europe around 30,000 years ago.
Most carriers of the red hair gene variants don’t actually have red hair themselves and may not know they carry it, but ScotlandsDNA has developed a test to let parents see if they might have red-haired children. For a child to have red hair, both parents must be carriers of the recessive gene and there is a 25% chance that their offspring will have it.
Helen Moffat of ScotlandsDNA, herself a redhead, told CBS News: “Britain has the most numbers of redheads per capita in the world. We’re really interested in finding out where it came from and why. It’s something rooted in our history and we should be proud.”
Between 2% and 6% of northwestern Europeans have red hair, compared with an average of around 0.6% of the world’s population as a whole. In the British Isles the numbers are much higher. In Scotland around 13% of the population have red hair, but over 30% are unknowing carriers of the redhead gene. In Ireland about 10% have red hair, but as many as 46% are carriers. Scottish and Irish emigration have made the USA the home of the largest population of redheads in the world at between 6 million and 18 million, with many millions more carrying the gene variants.
ScotlandsDNA, which proclaims Scotland as the world’s Red-Headed Nation, estimates the proportion of Scots carrying each variant as follows:
Cysteine-red – 10%.
Tryptophan-red – 9%.
Histidine-red – 2.5%.
ScotlandsDNA reckon that both Cysteine-red and Tryptophan-red originated in West Asia around 70,000 years ago, which would put the founders amongst the earliest generations of modern humans to live outside of Africa. Histidine-reds descend from a European who lived around 30,000 years ago. DNA studies conclude that some Neanderthals also had red hair, although the mutation responsible for this differs from that which causes red hair in modern humans.
In recorded history, the ancient Greeks and Romans described Celtic and Germanic people as redheads and the distribution of red hair in Europe today matches the ancient Celtic and Germanic worlds – with the highest frequencies in areas that remain Celtic-speaking to this day or until recently, such as Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany.
The map of red heads in northern and western Europe also correlates with the frequency of Y-chromosomal haplogroup R1b, thought to be linked to the origins of red hair. The 45th parallel north, which runs exactly halfway between the Equator and the North Pole, appears to be a major natural boundary for red hair frequencies. Under the 45th parallel, UV rays become so strong that it is no longer an advantage to have the very fair skin associated with red hair, and redheads become increasingly rare, even in high R1b areas. The origins of haplogroup R1b are complex, but it likely had a West Asian origin and migrated into Western Europe with the spread of agriculture.
While I personally have brown hair, I must be a carrier of one the variants of the red-head gene. The evidence shows in my beard after a couple of days and also in one of my sons, who has ‘strawberry blond’ hair (but, unusually, has brown eyes, no freckles, and skin that tans easily). As a red-head, he is in notable company, particularly in the R1b-dominated lineage of European royalty. Richard the Lionheart, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were all redheads. The ancient Briton Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, was described by Cassius Dio as “tall and terrifying in appearance… a great mass of red hair… over her shoulders.” Probably the best known red-head in Britain today is also of royal, and R1b, stock – Prince Harry (pictured at the top). While serving with the British Army in Afghanistan, he was known by his comrades – due to his hair colour and his status as a high profile target – as ‘the Ginger Bullet Magnet‘.