Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Was skin cancer a selective force for black pigmentation in early hominin evolution?

Some excerpts from a very interesting read, I suggest reading the whole article here:

Dark or black skin lowers the risk of ultraviolet radiation (UVR)-induced skin cancer by several orders of magnitude and, while this might be considered an incidental benefit, here I make a case for lethal skin cancer—in reproductive, young, early humans, as a potent selective force underlying the emergence of black skin as the ancestral pigmentation state.

Were it not for the efficacy of DNA repair of UV-induced DNA damage, those with white skin would all have cancer, and at a very young age, as evidenced by the impact of the inherited disorder of nucleotide excision DNA repair, xeroderma pigmentosum (XP) [25,26]. Black- or dark-skinned ethnic groups are substantially less at risk but when they do have a diagnosis of skin cancer, it is often on soles and palms—less pigmented regions of the body [27,28].

In black-skinned individuals, melanocytes synthesize brown/black eumelanin which is then packaged into peri-nuclear distributed, ellipsoid melanosomes of keratinocytes (figure 1). This appears to be a near optimal arrangement for UV filtration and DNA protection. In white skin, melanocytes synthesize a higher proportion of yellow and/or red pheomelanin and this is then assembled into clustered small, circular melanosomes in keratinocytes. The compound effect is minimal UV filtration.

Whatever the evolutionary logic, the acquisition of pale skin has become a liability. But only so because pale-skinned Europeans have been subject to either voluntary or enforced migration to much sunnier climes (e.g. Queensland, Australia, and other subtropical zones) and, more recently, have availed themselves of youthful opportunities for intermittent high level sun exposure via inexpensive air travel and recreational holidays in the sun. In this context, skin cancer arises as the consequence of a mismatch between the ancestral environmental conditions that shaped our genetics and skin properties and our current behavioural and social activities [3]. This narrative is reasonably well established. What I address here is another and, in a sense, reciprocal evolutionary aspect of skin coloration and cancer risk.

Early hominin evolution in East Africa at some 2–3 Ma was associated with a dramatic loss of the body hair development that is retained by our primate cousins [68,69]. Hair growth was retained on the head—the most UVR-exposed part of the body of a bipedal hominin. Some exotic explanations have been entertained for this dramatic phenotypic shift, including avoidance of fur parasites or of catching fire, a response to wearing clothes or an adaptation to an aquatic way of life [68–72]. But the most likely major adaptive advantage would have been for thermoregulation or facilitation of sweating and heat loss for physically active, hunter–gatherers in the savannah [69,73,74]. But what colour was the exposed skin of the first hairless hominins? Not black it would seem. The skin of our nearest primate relative, the chimpanzee, is, under the fur, essentially pale or white with melanocytes restricted to hair follicles [67]. The exposed and relatively hairless face and hands are also white in infant chimpanzees of three Pan subspecies (but black in Pan paniscus) and they become facultatively pigmented with age [75]. It has therefore been considered very likely, albeit not unambiguously so [76], that the first African hominins to discard hirsutism were also white- or pale-skinned [7,43,50].

There are no population-based databases that provide for accurate age incidence rates of skin cancer in African albinos. However, multiple clinical reports testify to the fact that the prevalence of skin cancer in African albinos, though variable according to geographical region, is exceptionally high in low-latitude (5–10°) regions with high year-round UVB exposures, including Tanzania [97,109–111], Cameroon [112] and Nigeria [93,113,114]. In South Africa, skin cancer rates in albinos vary with latitude and altitude, being relatively high in Soweto and the Transvaal and lower in the Transkei [107,115]. The risk of developing skin cancer in Soweto albinos was estimated to be some 1000 times that of pigmented blacks [116]. Erythema and burns occur in infant albinos and focal skin lesions develop as early as 5 years of age [97]. By the age of 20 years, most albino individuals in low-latitude regions have multiple actinic keratoses (figure 3) [97], the precursor lesions for SCC [117,118]. Many of these regress spontaneously but most, if not all albinos, have overt skin cancer in their twenties or thirties [97,115,119,120], with occasional presentation even in childhood [97]. 

8. Concluding remarks
Extrapolation from the current risk of skin cancer in OCA2 albinos to that of early hominins in equatorial Africa is clearly speculative but if early humans were indeed pale-skinned, they would most probably have similarly suffered substantial affliction during reproductively active years from non-melanoma skin cancers. That skin cancer in African albinos might be germane to considerations of the adaptive significance of dark skin has been noted before [7,11,138,139], but never explored.

The age-related incidence and mortality from skin cancer, both historically and in contemporary albinos, have been modulated by many factors, including lifestyle, occupation and varying degrees of awareness, preventive measures and medical intervention [91]. In these cultural respects, the lethal impact of skin cancer would have been more severe in naked, pale-skinned and outdoor living hominins, dwelling in a habitat with the highest levels of year-round UVB radiation—in open and arid equatorial savannah. It is difficult to imagine a more potent prescription for cancer: maximum, sustained, whole-body carcinogenic exposure (UVB) coupled with minimal attenuation capacity (via melanin). Young hunter–gatherer males might have suffered the greatest UV exposure and risk of cancer. Death would have ensued at a young age from either metastases or localized invasion, ulceration, bleeding and infection. The detrimental impact on reproductive fitness would then have been severe, providing potent pressure for both the selective sweep of the highly stable African MC1R variant, promoting eumelanin synthesis and black skin and its subsequent stable maintenance for more than a million years. This critical gene clearly did diversify in sequence and function in the descendents of most of those migrants that left Africa to populate the rest of the world. In those, the selective pressures via UVR were both relaxed and different.


  1. Well, fair enough: skin cancer risk was almost certainly an important evolutionary pressure for positive selection of black (brown) skin. However it has been argued that an even more decisive factor was the protection of folic acid (vit B9) from degrading under ultraviolet light. The reasons are similar (but inverse) to the evolution of white skin: low folic acid causes neural damage in the young, much as low vitamin D does. And optimal brain development is a key survival factor, particularly for humans.

    As for skin color in early hominins, I find it a bit far fetched to conclude that the first hairless skin of our species was white. All great apes in Africa, our nearest cousins, have the genetic potential to produce a very dark skin. Gorillas are fully black skinned, while chimpanzees and bonobos partly so (exposed areas like the face get the dark pigmentation, even if the covered body is much paler). That young chimpanzees have white faces seems to me an spurious argument to favor the hypothesis of an original hominin white skin, after all they are not closer to us than bonobos and only slightly closer than gorillas. Also chimpanzees have transited their own evolutionary road since our divergence, maybe 10 million years ago, and the fact that bonobo kids retain black pigmentation in the face suggests that this may be the ancestral state and not the one found in common chimps, whose evolution has been quite dynamic, even more than ours (the commonplace claim that we are more evolved than chips is at least quite dubious: they are quite more evolved than us from the genetic viewpoint, if we except the possibly key rearrangement-cum-fusion of human chromosome 2).

    I am almost certain that the first hominins had the genetic ability to produce a black or very dark skin and that whatever variability that existed was quickly solved by drastic selection, as those with too light skins clearly had strong disadvantages.

  2. Wow very deep article about skin cancer.also visit for such a detailed description about skin cancer visit
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