Myth Busting and Learning to be Proud!
Redheads have been objects of fascination, desire, ridicule, persecution, and a number of other things, throughout their existence. The redhead gene as we know it popped up around the same time as the Neanderthals, which led to the media fueled misnomer that redheads are therefore descended from Neanderthals. This is not at all accurate. It is simple coincidence that the first scientific evidence of the redheaded mutation showed up in the same era as our fascinating and now extinct bipedal friends. Though it is true that many Neanderthals had red hair, it is not from the same gene mutation that causes it in humans. It is also true that the color red had great significance to Neanderthals, as they would sprinkle red dirt or pigment on their dead when they buried them.
Many of these facts definitely fed the fire of the myth that the redhead gene mutation, found on the gene MC1R, was introduced by Neanderthals. However, it was not. The mutation has nearly always been around, but was never able to thrive until human beings began their move north, out of Africa and into less sunny and less hot climates. When this happened, the MC1R gene mutation, which controls melanin and pheomelanin production, was able to find footing. As the gene mutation causes pheomelanin (which has a red pigment opposed to the brownish pigment of melanin) to be produced instead of melanin. This then causes hair to be red, and skin to be pale. (Yes, it is true that there are instances of red hair in darker skinned populations, and that is caused by either co-dominant expression in the genes or a completely different gene all together. For the sake of the most common idea of “the redhead”, I will be speaking mostly about the fairer skinned gingers, as they are the most common in both thought and history when the word “ginger” is used.) This mutation proved to be helpful for the migrating and ever evolving human population, because along with the red hair, the mutation led to higher vitamin D absorption and natural production, which proved very useful in the colder and cloudy climates (I am looking at you, Ireland).
Since the red hair gene, as it is affectionately called, is a recessive gene (meaning that it has to be passed from both parents, however either or both can simply be carriers and not those who express it) it is less common in the mass population, and more common in smaller populations, such as the ancient Celtic and Viking populations. This led to higher percentages of redheads in those peoples than in others where the gene pool was more diverse and ever expanding.
Though it is rare, it is not going extinct, this is another myth, along with the Neanderthal origin myth that I happily bust. Not only are redheads not going extinct, but they are basically guaranteed to stick around for a long while as many non-redheads carry the recessive gene, just waiting to pass it on! That is why you will sometimes see a redhead in a family of non reds (such as myself!).
One big part of being ginger is accepting and learning all about the amazing and unique things that go along with red hair, and being proud of them. I had an interesting journey to embracing my red hair, and it started out with my own mother telling me as a young child that I didn’t want to have red hair, because all my teachers would hate me and think I was bad. This is a very strong idea to implant into a young child’s mind. But, long story short, when I did embrace the ginge tinge, I went all in. I looked up things online, searched for online communities, and bought books. I devoured all the literature I could find, and all the articles ever written on the internet about red hair and it’s correlating gene. And the most amazing thing is that every little thing I learned I related to, everything I learned about redhead skin, pain responses, sun responses, etc, made sense and explained so many things that never had explanation before that day. And it felt amazing. Learning about this rare gene that I had within myself connected me to a history deeper and more scandalous than I could ever imagine. It connected me to all the little ones feeling alone, bullied, and wishing their hair was like their friends’.
Here at Authentic Ginger that’s what we want, we want to be the friends, the community, the place where gingers can learn more about their beautiful and unique selves, all around the world — connected not just by a gene but by a history. And together we can learn more about that history, and explore the depths of myth and fact together. So, together we can be proud that we are the first to feel a change in the seasons, as we are more sensitive to temperature changes; we can be proud that we are tougher and more resilient against certain pains; and we can be proud that we are only a small percentage of the world, we are human unicorns, with all the good and bad that entails, and we will feel it and be it together. Together at Authentic Ginger.