The term “redhead” has been in use since at least 1510, but red-haired people have been around much, much longer. Red hair is the rarest natural hair color in humans, which has resulted in both prejudice and idolatry across many different cultures and eras. But what makes red hair red, and where does it come from?
What Causes Red Hair?
Red hair most commonly occurs when individuals have a recessive allele on chromosome 16 in both of their DNA lines, which produces an altered natural protein. Although the origins are still theoretical and surrounded by some mystery, it’s largely believed that a powerful tribe of red-dominant hair originating from the Middle East and Northern Caucasus once existed. During the Bronze Age, they are believed to have invaded the Balkans followed by Central and Western Europe, where they were able to thrive, while remaining rare in other directions of migration.
This is thought to be because red hair is most often paired with fair skin, which – because it has a harder time tanning and an easier time absorbing sunlight for energy – would help them thrive in those far-northern climates where sunlight is scarce. Over time, they became more associated with these areas and their cultures, specifically British and Celtic.
Where Are They Today?
Natural red hair occurs in 1-2% percent of the current human population, with the highest concentration among people of Northern and Northwestern European ancestry by far. Although Ireland has the highest number of redheads per capita of all the countries in the world (almost 10% of their total population), its neighbor Scotland’s own city Edinburgh has the most within one city – making it the redhead capital of the world.