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Archive for January, 2014

A few days ago, news broke of the genome-sequencing of DNA from a 7000-year-old skeleton found in Spain. While information about the ancient (variously described) man-or-boy’s genetic information is of course interesting on all sorts of levels — for instance, his lactose intolerance gives clues to the timing of pastoralism — both of the news sources I encountered focused primarily on his appearance. You see, he was (OMG) dark-skinned, but … get this … he had … BLUE EYES! I know right! Here’s the Guardian: Swarthy, blue-eyed cave man revealed using DNA from ancient tooth and the New Scientist: Ancient European hunter-gatherer was a blue-eyed boy.

The New Scientist also noted that in addition to dark skin, the man/boy had “hair like his African ancestors”. Both they and the Guardian chose to illustrate the story with this image:

Three days later, the Guardian ran this story about how nearly 20% of Neanderthal DNA lives on in modern humans. The article goes on to detail how much of the DNA that’s been retained is in keratin, a protein found in hair, nails, and skin. Now, I’m no geneticist, but to me that certainly implies that it’s at least possible that things like straight hair and relatively light skin — i.e., the traits shared by most non-African human populations, who carry Neanderthal DNA — might have come from Neanderthals. Indeed, the New Scientist’s version of the same story goes into detail specifically about Neanderthals passing on at least one of the genes involved in skin pigmentation, and speculates that Neanderthal keratin might have influenced Eurasians’ straight hair. The Guardian, though, chose to illustrate that story like this:

(The New Scientist, to their credit, used an illustration of a white guy of apparently indeterminate species.)

Now, look. I’m not an archaeologist, or a geneticist, or in any way qualified to comment on the actual science behind these stories. I’m not commenting on the science behind them. And it’s possible (though it seems unlikely) that the two illustrations above are fair representations of something that whatever the actual science behind these stories indicates. If so, though, it got well lost in translation. I try very hard, as a matter of general principle, to give people the benefit of the doubt, to extend maximal argumentative charity. But when one news story says “dark-skinned, blue-eyed man/boy with African-textured hair” and is illustrated with a drawing of a white guy with a tan, while another talks about Neanderthals having imparted skin and hair DNA to Eurasian humans, and is illustrated with a picture of a person with light eyes and Neanderthal brow ridges but who looks otherwise African, it’s hard to see that as anything but the tired, insidious repetition of the old idea that African people are somehow more “primitive” than others, particularly Europeans. The modern human, being human, is made as light as possible given the evidence presented in the story the illustration accompanies, and then a few shades lighter than that, just for good measure. While the Neanderthal, an extinct species whose very name has become synonymous with ‘primitive’, well, they’re well ancient, right? Better make them as brown as possible, no matter what the actual evidence being presented is saying. It is as though whoever makes (or matches) the illustrations for these stories did not even read their contents — they just went with whichever image “felt right”, which of course means “moar primitive = moar darker”. It is not only contributing to the stigmatization of Blackness (a drop in the bucket, maybe, but still); it is quite literally dehumanizing it.

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