Why does Ireland have such a high percentage of red haired people compared to the rest of the Western world?
It is a question that has intrigued historians and scientists for many years. The fact that Ireland, along with Scotland and Wales are the only three countries in Europe in which over 10% of the population have red hair suggests that the gene may come from the peoples’ Celtic origins.
However, another popular theory is that the gene was actually brought to the Irish and British Isles by the Vikings in the 8th-11th centuries.
Professor Donna Heddle is director of the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Centre for Nordic Studies. She believes that the Vikings who are often depicted in paintings and movies as having blond hair were actually red heads.
She said: “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.
“The only other density of red hair which compares to Scotland and Ireland is in Scandinavia. It becomes a cultural marker of the Norse and of the Vikings.
“If you look at where the red haired patterning is in Ireland, in particular, it is very much around the areas where Vikings settled.
“Research has shown that 60 per cent of the DNA of modern males on the Orkney Islands, where there is a particularly high proportion of redheads, is Norwegian. That evidence backs up the idea of the clear genetic influence.”
However, the senior lecturer at Edinburgh University, Dr Jim Wilson isn’t convinced that the red hair gene came from the Vikings. He believes it is more likely that the gene came from Celts and pre dates the Vikings.
He said: “There are redheads in Scandinavia and there doubtless were redheaded Vikings. Redheadedness is a north and western European trait, but the pattern of redheads in the British Isles is more consistent with the ancient indigenous Celtic inhabitants who were here before the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons. The Vikings maybe brought a few red-hair genetic variants over with them, but the majority of redheads were already here.”
Red hair is caused by V60L allele – ‘the ginger gene’. Some experts say it developed up to 50,000 years ago when humans left Africa and arrived in Europe.
The days were shorter and colder which meant that people had less time in the sun and absorbed less Vitamin D.
During this time fair skinned ginger people thrived as they were able to absorb Vitamin D at a faster rate than people with darker skin and hair.
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