I was watching DW’s documentary on the Arctic the other day, and I was struck by how the indigenous peoples of the far north seemed – visually speaking – to fit into two categories. On the one hand, there are the peoples of northern Europe, with their pale skin and their preponderance of blue-eyed and blond-haired individuals. On the other hand, there are the Yakuts, Inuit, Aleuts and many more, whose physical similarities – they all seem to share an East Asian-looking bone structure, as well as black hair, deep brown eyes and a skin tone akin to white coffee – belie vast differences in language, culture and belief. Why did northern Europeans evolve these distinctive physical traits while other northern peoples did not? It’s probably worth noting that the physical and temporal separation between, say, the Finns and the Nenets is much less than that between the Yakuts and Inuit.
It might be helpful to approach this by splitting up the different characteristics:
- Pale skin: Of all the physical characteristics, pale skin seems to confer the most obvious advantage: better absorption of sunlight, and the various benefits connected therewith. Although I’ve not carried out any kind of systematic analysis, non-Nordic northern peoples do not seem to have a lighter skin tone than their southern neighbours (i.e. the Chinese, Japanese, Native American, etc peoples).
- Blond hair and blue eyes: These are the most striking physical differences between Nordic and non-Nordic northern peoples, however it’s not clear – at least to me! – what advantage they confer in high latitudes. Is it just blind chance that these characteristics evolved in northern Europe, and not in, say, Central America? If it’s not blind chance, why did these characteristics evolve in northern Europe, but not in other northern regions?
- Other characteristics: I have read that there are other characteristics, e.g. greater height, associated with high latitudes. Do Nordic and non-Nordic northern peoples have any of these characteristics in common? If there is divergence here, how might it be explained?