If you’re Irish, you probably have red-headed relatives. I certainly do – with multiple cousins possessing red hair.
So where does it come from? The short answer: It is definitely genetic and the Irish people have had red hair for a very, very long time. Advances in DNA are helping to provide answers on the trait’s origin.
Less than 1% of the global population has red hair, but three countries in particular lead the way for red-heads – Ireland, Scotland & Wales. While you’ll also find red hair in countries like France, England, Norway & Sweden, you won’t see it as often. Consider this map from Eupedia:
What’s interesting about this map is it matches up largely with historical maps of the Celtic peoples. See the map below, based on The Atlas of the Celtic World. The yellow represents their core territory before 500 BC. The green shows their expansion by 270 BC. The darker green shows “Celtic nations” through the Middle Ages. And the darkest green designates areas that remain Celtic-speaking today.
The only part that doesn’t match up to the modern-day red-headed map is northern Europe and Scandinavia. But it wasn’t just Celtic people who had red hair. Germanic people had it too, going back to ancient times, when the Ancient Romans & Ancient Greeks are said to have referred to Celtic and Germanic peoples as “red-headed.”
For a while, people theorized that the Vikings brought red hair to Ireland. But more recent studies have disputed that.
Dr. Jim Wilson, a senior lecturer at Edinburgh University in Scotland, explains:
“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.”
A study by BritainsDNA estimated the percentage of each population in England, Scotland, Wales & Ireland who carries the gene for red hair:
Pretty high percentages. But these are carriers only. So it doesn’t mean they have red hair, but they have a gene for it that they can pass on to descendants. It’s one of the reasons why red hair can skip multiple generations before it appears again.
One possibly large factor on the spread of red hair: the R1b paternal lineage. It’s common all across western Europe, including Scandinavia, and especially common in Ireland. Many R1b carriers have had red hair over the centuries, including Prince Harry today.
In terms of the exact gene, research has found that the MC1R gene is responsible for red hair, as well as fair skin and the likelihood of freckles. It first appeared in human beings about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, so whatever the source, it dates back a long, long time ago. The modern day Irish who have red hair are recipients of a gene that goes back tens of thousands of years.
One theory on why the Irish have a higher percentage of red-heads: due to the remote geographic location of Ireland, Wales & Scotland, there was less frequent mixing with other populations over the centuries, and the red hair gene has remained prominent among the Celtic people. An old gene – ancient, really – that can still be observed today.
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