A Scientific & Historic Review
To start, let’s clarify the following:
– Like many other West Africans, most Igbo people have brown or dark brown skin.
– Igbos aren’t the only group with significant numbers of lighter-skinned people.
What is light skin?
Amongst Africans from the continent, determining whether someone is deemed dark or light skinned is based on whether or not their skin complexion is lighter than the average skin tone of the others around them. This is the definition we’re referring to in this article.
Many Igbo people who fall into this category are phenotypically similar to those with darker skin (hair texture/nose etc).
So, why is it just Igbos that are stereotyped this way?
The three largest ethnic groups in Nigeria are Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo, and when people think of Nigeria, they frequently refer to these groups. Igbos tend to have more light-skinned people compared to the other major ethnic groups. As a result, people often associate Igbos with having lighter skin.
Is there a plausible explanation as to why?
In terms of skin colour, Africa is the most visually diverse continent on the planet. Sun exposure, temperature, natural selection, migration, and mixing influence these differences.
This article will attempt to use as much scientific and historical information available to explain why mid to light brown skin tones are found across the coastal areas of Nigeria. And why higher concentrations exist in the southeastern region, especially among the Igbo, Ibibio, Efik etc.
Environment, adaptation and natural selection
Across the world, different ethnic groups have different skin tones. These skin colour variations likely occurred due to thousands of years of natural selection, resulting in people with traits that are better adapted to their environment.
It’s well known that people with darker skin have more melanin. Melanin protects you from the sun’s UV rays and it assists the body in vitamin D production, an essential prohormone the body needs to stay healthy.
Since different parts of the world have different levels of sun ray exposure, it makes sense that people’s skin adapts to suit their environment over time. For example indigenous Nilo-Saharans in the Sahara desert tend to have darker skin than those in more tropical regions like southern Nigeria, where vegetation provides more protection from the sun’s rays.
The maps below show a correlation between darker skin and higher solar intensity.
- ***Green circle: Igboland in South East Nigeria
- ***Resource (Skin tone and UV Radiation)
As demonstrated below, much of South-Eastern Nigeria lies within the ‘rainforest’ regions of the world. In these regions, plants provide protection against sunlight, with only 2-15% of the sun’s light reaching the ground. From an evolutionary viewpoint, it would make sense if slightly less melanin is needed in these regions.
In addition to the environment and climate, several complex and nuanced evolutionary factors may influence regional variations in skin colour. Let’s look at some other things that could be at play.
Addition: Natural Selection, Social preferences theory
A suggestion was made that some form of societal preference for lighter skinned people existed amongst Igbos leading to higher numbers. Although its true that societal preferences can account for some traits appearing more often. In cases where this occurs, groups of people with the preferred trait occur in more concentrated areas. Amongst Igbo people skin tone variations appear random, and it’s widely recognised that drastic variations in skin tones can occur in a single nuclear family.
Previously, we examined the study ‘Why do some Nigerians have ginger hair?‘, and found that 1 in 500 to 1 in 1000 southern Nigerians have reddish hair/skin. The study showed many people with this trait are from Bini and Igbo areas. Although the phenotype is rare, most would be classified as ‘light skinned’. Additionally, people with various kinds of albinism can also be classed as having light skin.
Addition: Random Genetics
Another genetic reason for the ‘light skinned’ trait could be unexplainable random gene variants.
As migration occurs, people are likely to mix. This is most evident in countries like Sudan, where nowadays the average Sudanese person has mixed Arab and indigenous black African ancestry. This is evident in their complexion and other phenotype like hair texture.
Some have suggested that Igbos have lighter skin because of mixing with one or more of the following.
- Semitic/Hebrew/ Jewish people
- Portuguese slave traders
- British slave traders+
Let’s look at each and see how plausible these theories are.
1) Mixing with lighter-skinned Semitic/Hebrew/Jewish people
- There is no legitimate evidence that suggests that Igbo people are descendants of Jews/Hebrews etc. This includes pre-Christian religious practices (unique to Igbos) that connect them with Jews. For example, male circumcision is practised by many worldwide who are unrelated to the Jewish faith.
- Looking at historical timelines, Igbos predate Hebrews like many indigenous Africans.
- Several aspects of the traditional Igbo religion and way of life (Odininai) are considered deeply non-kosher within the Jewish faith (having idols, eating crayfish and other non-kosher foods etc)
Fans of this idea have been dedicated with their attempts to spread these ideas but they are myths at best. ***See references at the end of this page. We’ll shed more light on this in another article.
2) Transatlantic Slave Trade: Mixing with the Portuguese
It’s well documented that the Portuguese arrived on the shores of West Africa in the late 1400s, and in 1485 they began slave trading with the Bini Kingdom. The Portuguese also traded with Old Calabar however:
- The Portuguese didn’t travel far inland due to illnesses like yellow fever and other difficulties. They relied on coercion and negotiations with natives to bring enslaved people to the port. Since the overwhelming majority of Igbo people lived inland it’s unlikely any had direct interaction with the Portuguese.
- The Portuguese had much more recorded interaction with Akan people in Ghana, however in comparison to Igbos there are fewer Akans who would be classified as light skinned.
- If there was prevalent mixing between the Portuguese and West Africans it would be more evident amongst the groups they had significant interactions with.
- For people to show visible DNA from another ethnicity, it often requires the incoming group to establish structured colonies. That way, significant amounts of people (typically men) have access to women to bear children (e.g. Portuguese in South America). In this case, the intention of the Portuguese on the coast of Nigeria was business.
3) Transatlantic Slave Trade: Mixing with the British
The bulk of the slave trading between the British and Igbos occurred in the 1700s however:
- Most British slave traders didn’t penetrate deep inland where Igbos resided. They relied on negotiation and coercion to establish networks of native rulers along the seacoast who would work with Igbo middlemen to bring enslaved people down to the coast. This wouldn’t have provided the opportunity to intermix at the levels required to influence the entire ethnic group.
- It was primarily African men who interacted with European men. Usually, women would be the carriers of external DNA, generally through illegitimate pregnancies. Most women brought to the shores would have been sold into slavery not impregnated by a European and sent back to her village.
- “Red eboe”: Due to the significant number of fair-skinned Igbo enslaved people, they were referred to as ‘red eboe’ on arrival in Jamaica. This suggests the characteristic existed before the transatlantic slave trade.
3) British colonisation:
Of all of the mixing theories, this seems most plausible because during colonisation, many British people found themselves serving the interests of the British empire and had interactions with native people. It’s possible that some had illegitimate children with native Igbo women. However, intermixing was not that prevalent and this short period of colonisation is unlikely to justify the millions of Igbo people who are of a lighter hue. And, as previously detailed, by that time it had already been documented that Igbos had lighter skin (‘red eboe’, slavery in Jamaica).
Addition: In each theory stated above, none account for the fact that, for many light-skinned Igbos, there aren’t notable differences in other phenotypes (hair texture, nose etc.) to suggest significant admixture with non-African people.
Returnee enslaved peoples:
Another conceivable reason for the existence of European/Non-African DNA in Igbo society is enslaved people returning to Africa and mixing with other Nigerians. Formerly enslaved people would have started to return to Africa from the 1800s onwards and this may account for some who have minor percentages of non-African DNA. However, as discussed above this still wouldn’t explain the pre-slavery existence of Igbo fair skin.
It’s difficult to draw a concrete conclusion even after this exercise. Though we could argue that the environment in pre-deforestation Igboland may be a factor in higher numbers of lighter skinned people, there is no agreed specific reason why Igbos have this trait.
Ultimately genetics control how much melanin a person produces, and it’s something that can vary drastically even amongst blood siblings. No shade of black makes someone one more or less Igbo than another. And we hope that eventually, as African people, we learn that we have to appreciate our skin the utmost because, more often than not, the rest of the world won’t.
- Extract from John Oriji: Political Organization in Nigeria Since the Late Stone Age: A History of the Igbo People, Page 29
- Extract from Adiele Afigbo’s Essays, Edited by Toyin Faola, Page 19.