Like every other redhead I know, I have a mental list of notable gingers from history: Richard the Lion-Hearted, Christopher Columbus, Elizabeth I, Thomas Jefferson, Lucille Ball…* It’s a natural defense against phrases like “red-headed stepchild” and that popular playground taunt, “I’d rather be dead than red on the head.” **
Not speaking for anyone else, my famous red-head list has never included anyone from the ancient world. I picture the population of the ancient world, from Babylon to Rome, with dark hair. Red heads didn’t seem to march onto the stage of world history until Rome ran into the Germanic and Celtic peoples.
So I was fascinated to read a recent article claiming that red-hair was more ancient and more widely distributed than I knew. You can read the article here, but the basic argument is that two of the three red-hair genes can be traced to West Asia about 70,000 years ago–contemporary with the earliest humans to live outside of Africa.
Tracing the red hair gene may not be that important to the 98% of the population that aren’t carrot-tops But it is only one of the ways that DNA testing and other modern scientific techniques are re-shaping our knowledge of the prehistoric and ancient world, from the evolution of foodstuffs to the domestication of animals. The distant past is growing a little less distant all the time.
* Don’t laugh. Ball may have played a ditz on the screen, but she was a smart, tough lady in real life who made history behind the camera as the first woman to run a major television studio.
** Alas! This sort of thing isn’t limited to children. An otherwise adult friend of mine told me several times that he thinks red hair is “creepy”. He only stopped after I invoked the popular trope of red-haired temper and threatened to pop him one.