Why Europeans Are Tall, White, and Love Milk.

A research study challenged commonly held notions about the physical traits of Europeans

Jeff Cunningham
4 min readMar 19, 2024

If your skin is a lighter shade of pale, your hair reflects the color of the sun, and your eyes mirror an azure blue sky, there’s more than Nordic sexiness behind your captivating features. An enchanting palette isn’t a whimsical gift from the Vikings. A story far older and more complex is being told, suggesting that a European appearance is more than than tales of seafaring warriors, it is a most likely attributed to the wanderlust of your Middle Eastern forebears.

According to the 84th annual meeting of American Association of Physical Anthropologists, a groundbreaking study unveiled a new narrative of human evolution. A story that debunked the idea of Europe as the "presto" birthplace of pale skin, tall stature, and lactose tolerance had heads spinning followed by a whirlwind of revised theses. It showed that these genetic traits only moved into the neighborhood recently.

The study compared the DNA of 83 ancient Europeans by unearthing archaeological sites sprinkled across the continent. Messy business that, but the results were worth it. It finally discarded the traditional focus on a handful of individuals to paint a vivid picture of an entire continent. It takes a village, indeed. What the population of dynamic hunter-gatherers, farmers, and pastoralists from the steppes showed the scientists was profound if unsettling.

Among the findings is the story of the Yamnaya herders. From north of the Black Sea, these ancient mariners not only brought Indo-European languages to Europe around 4500 years ago but also an unusual set of genes that matched the needs of a pastoral lifestyle. They were taller, presumably for observing wandering herds, and had a more natural ability to defend them. Yet, there were more striking changes. Two other traits led to the characteristics we associated with modern Europeans: the evolution of skin pigmentation and diet.

Take, for instance, the shared obsession of the average Starbucks customer: which type of milk? Oat, soy, almond, or lactose-free? The intolerance of lactose sugar was a natural condition of ancient hunter-gatherers and the first wave of farmers who tilled Europe's soils around 14,000 years ago, during the first significant warming period after the Ice Age.

The problem, their systems weren’t able to digest milk as adults.

It wasn't until roughly 4300 years ago that the ability to metabolize milk sugar swept across Europe, propelled by the arrival of, once again, those lactose-tolerant Yamnayas. From there, it spread across the continent, becoming a vital new and obtainable source of protein, which explains the continued growth of Europe’s inhabitants biologically and ecologically.

Europeans' skin color evolution also revealed the hidden secret of genetic diversity. Early settlers, arriving from Africa around 40,000 years ago, likely had dark skin, a significant advantage under the sun-drenched skies of Europe's southern latitudes. The findings show that by 8500 years ago, according to Nature, hunter-gatherers in regions like Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary had dark complexions as they lacked the genetic markers for lighter skin prevalent in today's Europeans.

As we venture north, the plot thickens. Hunter-gatherers of southern Sweden took their first sauna here around 7700 years ago. These individuals possessed genes linked to lighter skin, blue eyes, and possibly blonde hair. But you know how those Scandies like to keep things to themselves, right? So these traits did not travel south. Yesterday’s Swede is not today’s blond blue eyed Italian.

The research discovered the missing link. Some 8,000 years ago, the first European farmers emigrated to Europe from the Middle East. These peoples were from the southern Levant region, including Israel and Jordan, and it was that group who introduced genes for lighter skin into the European genetic mosaic. As the newly arrived settlers intermixed, genes associated with lighter skin began to disseminate, resulting in a notable lightening of skin tones among central and southern European inhabitants. However, this was not just a lighter version of the genetic profile in Scandinavian countries; it started in middle Europe and traveled north, where they met their genetic double. As Bob Dylan would have said, it was blond on blond.

So why did blondness take off? The phenomenon could be attributed to a selective advantage for a skin type better suited to the reduced solar intensity of Europe's mid-latitudes — blonds need less sun — or a natural disposition towards a novel appearance. Blonds have more fun.

Your choice.

As a result, the contemporary European population exhibits skin tones from albaster to bronze and platinum. The hypothesis suggests two overwhelmingly common human traits are responsible: The drive to survive and the need to succeed.