Blonde Berbers

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Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the little blonde girl photographed in Morocco turns out not to be missing British girl Madeleine McCann, but the daughter of a Berber farming family, who are said to have three other blonde children.

Most of us will have been vaguely aware that blonde hair and fair skin are not uncommon among the Berbers, but it has evidently come as a surprise to the general public. It is usually explained by a hypothetical element of European ancestry, whether from Roman slaves (as in this Daily Mail article), the Vandals, or more prosaically from the colonial occupation by French soldiers and government officials (who presumably didn’t just twiddle their thumbs).

I wonder if there is any hard genetic evidence? Y chromosomes might at least show whether the paternal ancestry is recently European. An alternative, and more interesting, explanation would be that the Berbers are the remnants of an older, more ‘Caucasian’, North African population.

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28 Comments

  1. Look at a map of Spain, at the narrow straight of Gibraltar. And look at it during the last ice age. 
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/1554594.stm 
     
    There was surely significant gene flow between Morocco and Spain in antiquity.

  2. I was using ‘google scholar’ to look up something about blonde Berbers yesterday, there do seem to be mitochondrial DNA links between Europe and the Berbers. That makes a lot more sense that the more recent proposed origins for North African blondes, such as Vandals (who were never very numerous) or slaves, because those groups would have been concentrated near the coast rather than in the mountains and the interior like the Berbers.

  3. Well the Berbers are linked to the Saami of Scandanavia by mtDNA U5b1b – which is also found in the Yakut of Siberia, and in the Fulbe of the Sahel. 
     
    From the link: 
    the identification of U5b1b now unequivocally links the maternal gene pool of the ancestral Berbers to the same refuge area and indicates that European hunter-gatherers also moved toward the south and, by crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, contributed their U5b1b, H1, H3, and V mtDNAs to modern North Africans.

  4. The Berbers are also linked via mtDNA U6b1 to the Guanches of the Canary Islands – which are off the South West coast of Morocco.

  5. More on the Guanches here. 
     
    Quote: 
    The Guanche population of Tenerife were, according to accounts from the 15th century, tall, tan-skinned, and powerfully built, with some having blond hair and blue eyes. 
     
    I knew a Cuban girl, who was 5’9″ with blue eyes and brown hair and very fair complexion – she looked Irish – she said that her Dad was a Guanche descendant from the Canaries and was 6’4″ with green eyes.

  6. Don’t forget the European slaves and Barbary Pirates. 
     
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbary_pirates

  7. Some Berber stuff. 
     
    http://hpgl.stanford.edu/publications/AJHG_2004_v74_p000-0130.pdf 
     
    http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/AJHG/journal/issues/v76n5/42165/42165.html?erFrom=9191304050767565048Guest 
     
    High E ydna in Berber.May be like an ink drop on blotting paper,further you get away from the centre the lighter it gets;drift ?.

  8. to really have an relevant discussion we need to know the frequency of blondism. the priors can then be appropriately modulated.

  9. It must be tough to be a blond Berber who has moved to the United States. If you were applying for college admissions or a government job, you’d have a very tough time convincing the authorities that yes, you ARE nonwhite and yes, you ARE eligible for affirmative action!

  10. It must be tough to be a blond Berber who has moved to the United States. If you were applying for college admissions or a government job, you’d have a very tough time convincing the authorities that yes, you ARE nonwhite and yes, you ARE eligible for affirmative action! 
     
    1) people from the middle east and north africa are classified as ‘white’ on the census, no matter what they look like. 
     
    2) my impression is that college admissions are mostly self-report. there are surely many white latinos (or half-white latinos) who don’t have to justify their physical appearance. ditto with people who are not that different in looks from the typical european but have an ‘exotic’ name.

  11. but it has evidently come as a surprise to the general public. 
     
    that’s because of the socially constructed aspect of race. the “white” phenotype ends at the bosporus and gibraltar in the public imagination.

  12. Why all the fuss about a blond Berber girl? Blondism is more common during childhood, and appears in all Caucasian populations. For Berbers are still predominantly Caucasian, of mixed Upper Paleolithic (hence the robustness and residual blondism) and Mediterranean origins. 
    As a rule, North Africans who identify as Arab (as opposed to Berber) are more likely to have recent Negroid and Arab ancestry.

  13. i think deadman has the right flavor of response.

  14. What about the blonde Afghans, popularly attributed to Alexander’s army? Just like all the blonde Greeks you meet.

  15. What about the blonde Afghans, popularly attributed to Alexander’s army? Just like all the blonde Greeks you meet. 
     
    1) how many blond afghans are there? 
     
    2) you’re engaging in the fallacy that within group variation has to derive from admixture of “pure” types. the spread of alleles like SLC24A5 or LCT for LP should disabuse you of that perception. 
     
    3) i shouldn’t have to say #2 if you are a regular reader of this blog, so i’ll assume you’re making a joke comment, so #2 is for the others.

  16. the “white” phenotype ends at the bosporus and gibraltar in the public imagination. 
     
    Actually a little farther west than the Bosporus, at the Turkey/Greece and Turkey/Bulgaria borders.

  17. Another possibility is the sea people from 1200 BC. It is quite possibile, that they were (part of) the forebears of the Phoenicians, Philistine’s, Garamantes and Karthagians. And we have hints, that the Touareg have much in common with the Garamantes and Karthagians (names, hair-style etc.).  
     
    And we have “Genetic evidence in support of a shared Eurasian-North African dairying origin”: Sean Myles et. al., Human Genetics, Vol. 117/2005, p. 34 ? 42

  18. “how many blond Afghans do you meet?”  
    I don’t know if I’ve ever actually met one, but I did see one once. A child perhaps four, in the documentary about a beauty shop in Afghanistan (the child had not dyed her hair, btw). She looked something like the little blond Berber. Her parents were both dark haired and were Afghans of no mentioned admixture. 
    This film was made too long ago for the little blond Afghan to be the missing McCann child (no joke intended.)

  19. Shrewdly assumed, Razza.

  20. “Blondism is more common during childhood, and appears in all Caucasian populations.” 
     
    I don’t think you would ever see it among Indian or Pakistani children, except way up near Afghanistan.  
     
    Or in children from the Arabian peninsula. 
     
    Or even among Sicilians, with no northern ancestry.  
     
    Of course you’re right that it is more common among children than adults (because the hair darkens with age). There are some photos of the little Berber girl with her 16-year old sister, whose hair is now dark brown. A very fine-looking pair, incidentally. Apart from the hair, they have very European features. If I had to guess their nationality, I would have said French or north Italian (or maybe Spanish – there are some fair Spaniards.)

  21. Ingo, 
     
    It would seem that the Berbers are the descendants of the Garamantes. Also that the Carthaginians has a Phoenician ruling elite, and the commoners were probably much like the Berbers of today, so some were probably of Garamantes descent. 
     
    Who knows if the Sea Peoples are related to the Megalithic builders?

  22. David B., 
     
    I’m curious. There are plenty of light-haired folks running around Sicily. What do you mean by “Northern admixture?” You mean from way back in the day, when Vikings were raiding the coast? Or did yo or something more recent?  
     
    Please note that I am neither offended by your comment nor ashamed of my swarthy Sicilian phenotype. :-)

  23. I’m curious. There are plenty of light-haired folks running around Sicily. 
     
    yes, that’s what i’ve heard too. i would be skeptical that is simply northern admixture, though that could be part of it.

  24. pconroy, 
     
    megalith builders?  
     
    May be. They have found graves somewhere in Palestine from 1200 BC that have very much in common with graves of the same time in Southern Germany. (I think, I have read this in a book about the excavations of Ugarit.)

  25. MarcZ: you may be right about Sicily. I haven’t actually been there, though I have been to most other parts of Italy. Blonde(ish) hair is quite common in northern Italy, e.g. Milan, but it pretty rare by the time you get to Naples, unless it comes out of a bottle. So I assumed it would be very rare in Sicily. 
     
    By ‘northern admixture’ I meant mainly mixture with other Italians. According to this article 
     
    http://www.bestofsicily.com/mag/art166.htm 
     
    genuine blondes are highly sought after in Sicily.

  26. MarcZ 
    Don’t forget that Sicily was Norman from 1091-1194, so they probably introduced some blonde hair, to add to any background blondism. 
     
    DavidB 
    Here in New York there are a lot of Greeks living in Astoria, one can tell them apart easily from Turks, Arabs and Hispanics in the area, as they are the ones with the platinum blonde hair!  
    So I think “suicide blonde” – as they say in the land of Oz – is big in other parts of the Mediterranean too…

  27. How long after Out of Africa did the ur-Berbers come back to the continent?

  28. 1) The Phoenicians/Carthaginians were West Semitic speakers from modern-day Lebanon (Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, and Byblos) who settled along the coasts of North Africa, Sicily, Sardinia, and Spain. The Phoenician language was almost identical to Hebrew, and the Phoenicians called themselves “Canaanites.” 
     
    2) As for the Sea Peoples, that is a modern term for a range of people active as pirates and mercenaries in the Mediterranean around 1200 BC. Some were almost certainly Mycenaean Greeks; others were probably “sea gypsies” (coastal traders and itinerant metalworkers who moonlighted as pirates). The latter seem to have been based in Cyprus, southern Asia Minor, and perhaps Sardinia and Sicily. 
     
    3) The Garamantes lived in the Sahara and were probably ancestors of the Tuareg. The Tuareg are generally darker than Kabyle and Rif Berbers and probably have more sub-Saharan ancestry due to their location. 
     
    4) As for the comments about Sicily, Sicilians who look like this girl (natural blond hair which turns light brown as adults) would probably be assumed to have Norman ancestry.  
    However, Berbers with light skin and red or reddish-brown hair are shown in ancient Egyptian murals, and modern Kabyle and Rif Berbers (like this girl) sometimes have light complexions and red or blond hair. So it is likely that these characteristics were found in the Mediterranean before the Normans, Visigoths, or Vandals arrived.

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