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Evolution of Human Skin and Skin Pigmentation

Research on the evolution of skin color in humans was avoided by scientists for many years. Skin color is worthy of scientific investigation, however, because it is the product of over five million years of evolution in the human lineage, it the most obvious characteristic in which people vary in their appearance, and it is of great social importance. Our research on the evolution of human skin and skin color has demonstrated that skin color is the product of natural selection acting to regulate levels of melanin pigment in the skin relative to levels of ultraviolet radiation (UVR) in the environment. Melanin is a natural sunscreen that prevents the breakdown of certain essential biomolecules (in particular, the B vitamin folate, and DNA), while permitting enough UVR to enter the skin to promote the production of essential vitamin D.

The large family of studies in these areas - the evolution of human skin and skin pigmentation, including the effects of skin pigmentation on health and human social well-being - is conducted by Nina Jablonski, George Chaplin, Hsin-Yu Chen, and Tess Wilson, along with collaborators from medical and social sciences from many institutions, including Penn State.  Current studies are focused on the evolution of skin pigmentation in India (with Mircea Iliescu from Cambridge), on factors determining the production of vitamin D in the skin (with Anna Coussens and Robert Wilkinson from the University of Cape Town), and the use and abuse of skin bleaching agents in different countries (with Lester Davids of the University of Cape Town).  Public education and outreach activities about skin pigmentation and its implications for health and human social well-being (including lectures and the writing of books for the general public) are conducted regularly by Jablonski and other members of the Lab.

 

Relevant Publications:

Jablonski, N. G., & Chaplin, G. (2017). The colours of humanity: The evolution of pigmentation in the human lineage. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 372(1724). doi:10.1098/rstb.2016.0349

Chen, H.-Y., Yarnal, C., Chick, G., & Jablonski, N. (2017). Egg white or sun-kissed: A cross-cultural exploration of skin color and women's leisure behavior. Sex Roles, Online First. doi:10.1007/s11199-017-0785-4

Davids, L. M., van Wyk, J., Khumalo, N. P., & Jablonski, N. G. (2016). The phenomenon of skin lightening: Is it right to be light? South African Journal of Science, 112(11/12), 1-5. doi:10.17159/sajs.2016/20160056

Coussens, A. K., Naude, C. E., Goliath, R., Chaplin, G., Wilkinson, R. J., & Jablonski, N. G. (2015). High-dose vitamin D3 reduces deficiency caused by low UVB exposure and limits HIV-1 replication in urban Southern Africans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(26), 8052-8057. doi:10.1073/pnas.1500909112

Jablonski, N. G., & Chaplin, G. (2012). Human skin pigmentation, migration and disease susceptibility. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 367(1590), 785-792. doi:10.1098/rstb.2011.0308

Jablonski, N. G. (2012). The evolution of human skin colouration and its relevance to health in the modern world. Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 42, 58-63. doi:10.4997/JRCPE.2012.114

Jablonski, N. G., & Chaplin, G. (2010). Human skin pigmentation as an adaptation to UV radiation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(Supplement 2), 8962-8968. doi:10.1073/pnas.0914628107

Jablonski, N. G. (2010). Skin coloration. In M. I. Muehlenbein (Ed.), Human Evolutionary Biology (pp. 192-213). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chaplin, G., & Jablonski, N. G. (2009). Vitamin D and the evolution of human depigmentation. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 139(4), 451-461. doi:10.1002/ajpa.21079

Jablonski, N. G. (2004). The evolution of human skin and skin color. Annual Review of Anthropology, 33, 585-623. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.33.070203.143955

Jablonski, N. G., & Chaplin, G. (2000). The evolution of human skin coloration. Journal of Human Evolution, 39(1), 57-106. doi:10.1006/jhev.2000.0403