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Why do some Nigerians have red hair?

Ever seen a black person with stunning ginger hair and wondered why? Although rare, most people in Nigeria would have come across someone with red hair, whether it be a family member or a passer-by.

In this article, we’ll take a look at what research has found and why this may occur.

So, what makes someone’s hair red?

It’s a tricky question with a complicated answer. On top of that, most research on red hair has been done on Europeans, leaving gaps in understanding how it develops in Africans. 

What we do know is that:

Between 1 in 500 and 1 in 1000 people in southern Nigeria have reddish hair, skin, and eyes. 

N. A. Barnicot, from Red Hair In African Negroes: A Preliminary Study

Research by N. A. Barnicot, Department Of Anthropology, University College, London, found that between 1 in 500 and 1 in 1000 people in southern Nigeria have reddish hair, skin, and eyes. This inherited trait is unrelated to albinism, but because symptoms vary, it’s difficult to say whether it’s a single condition or a combination of many. 

Comparison to European red hair

Map: Hair colors in human populations before the European expansion

Whether the causes of red-haired Europeans are the same as Africans is still in question.

The study found that the inherited trait is unrelated to albinism, but because features vary, it’s hard to say if it’s caused by a single factor or a combination of many. It’s unclear if the causes of red hair in Europeans are the exact same as in Africans. Most red-haired Europeans have pale eyes and skin due to low melanin and the pigment trichosiderin in their DNA. However, not all red-haired Africans show signs of less melanin, and only a few African samples showed traces of the pigment trichosiderin.

Is red hair in Black people related to albinism? 

Early researchers assumed “xanthic**” (red-haired) Africans had albinism because of their lighter hair, complexion, eyes, and sometimes nystagmus (uncontrolled eye movements).

However, in 1944, researcher Loewenthal distinguished between albinism and red-haired/”xanthic**” Africans. He used the term “partial albinism” to describe people who fell within the albinism spectrum but had red hair. In conclusion he stated that Africans with the condition (albinism) always had paler skin and lighter irises. However, sometimes there is overlap between features, i.e. light yellow-red hair and browner shades.

**”xanthic” is the term used in the study, as noted in the study it isn’t an accurate term to use for red-haired people of any ethnic group.

Which ethnic group has the most red-haired Nigerians?

The bulk of the study took place in the east of Lagos (Yorubaland). In 1951, 70% of this population was Yoruba, and 30% were from other southern ethnic groups (Igbo, Bini, etc.).  From this region, 17 red-haired families were examined. Actual numbers: 5 Yoruba, 5 Bini, 4 Igbo, 1 Sobo, 1 Ibibio, 1 Brazilian-Togo 

Excerpt from Study

Researchers also surveyed red-haired people in Bini City. Studies showed that the numbers of red-haired people in Lagos and Benin City were similar. However, those in Beinin City were mostly xanthic Igbo and Bini. In contrast, many red-haired Yoruba people in Lagos had albinism. **. (Barnicot, 1952).

**For more information, see the study.

Visualised map of study sample from Lagos: N. A. Barnicot, from Red Hair In African Negroes: A Preliminary Study

Is red hair more prevalent in men than in women? 

Results from the research suggest red hair is more common in men than in women, with only 4/23 of those with red hair being females**. It’s worth noting that at the time, girls with red hair were more likely to cover it up with a hair tie due to social stigma. 

**Only half of the school attendants at the time were girls.

Does red hair darken with age?

Although studies have not shown that red hair darkens with age, word of mouth accounts affirmed it did. It was also observed that the back of the head had darker hair than the front.

Eye colour: Do red-haired Africans have lighter eyes? 

Not necessarily, the study showed about 25% (only six of the 23) of eyes examined had medium brown irises.

Copper-colour? Do red-haired Africans have red skin? 

Light, copper-coloured skin was common among the red-haired people surveyed, with some having a stronger copper hue. Researchers discovered that there isn’t always a link between red hair and lighter skin, as some people studied had both red hair and dark skin. It was noted that those with normal hair may show a slight reddish tint to their skin, but this is uncommon.

So (again), why do some Africans have red hair? 

The research shows that Africans with red hair either have a form of albinism or a gene that causes red hair. Like many aspects of how we look, including our height, nose shape, and hair texture etc, our hair colour is determined by our genetics. Although it is unclear why some Africans have this trait, it is a beautiful aspect of African diversity.

Images of ginger people of African descent.

Resources: 

Research study: Annals of Eugenics (1925-1954)  

Am J Hum Genet. 2000 Apr; 66(4): 1351–1361.

Evidence for Variable Selective Pressures at MC1R

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