You might normally associate fiery red hair with people of Irish descent, but the unique trait can also be found throughout a number of diverse ethnic backgrounds.
Africans and people from the Caribbean have also been known to don bright red hair due to a gene mutation in the melanocortin 1 receptor commonly referred to as MC1R. The special gene regulates melanin in skin pigmentation, the eyes, and hair. However, the distinctive trait only occurs in an individual when both parents carry the unique receptive gene. Scientists believe that the distinct gene mutation is more common in climates where there is little to no harmful sun exposure.
According to the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), about 35% of people in Ireland and Scotland carry the MC1R receptor and roughly 10% have red hair. Globally, only 1 to 2% of the population have red hair, which is why it’s quite rare to see Black people with the unique feature, but they do exist.
Migration may have played a role in spreading the unique gene mutation
Barry Starr, a geneticist from Stanford University told Vice that “Red hair carriers in the Caribbean and Africa are for the most part due to migration or gene flow.”
“The last evidence I saw, was that there was a strong selection pressure against changes in the MC1R gene that caused it not to work in regions with a lot of sunlight—think Africa,” Dr. Star explained. “This probably has to do with the pale skin that comes with red hair. This means that even if an MC1R mutation did spontaneously appear previously in African populations, as it did multiple times in Europe, it did not spread and eventually petered out.”
The red hair trait may have developed from historical interactions between Europeans and Africans in the Caribbean in the 1600s. Catholic Irish people were sent to the West Indies as indentured servants during that time period.
“This might also explain why you occasionally see red hair on a black Caribbean person who has two black parents. By chance alone, it might be that they are both carrying a European mutation which has come together in their child,” Dr. George Busby an expert from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, added to the publication.
Additionally, red hair can also occur in Black people as a result of Albinism, a genetic condition that reduces melanin in the skin. The rare trait usually occurs in people who have rufous Albinism, which, in addition to red hair, can cause an individual to have golden or bronze skin as well as blue eyes.