Inuits live in very cold climates, why do they have dark skin?

- asks Anonymous

An Alaskan Inuk. [CREDIT: CULTUREBY.COM]
By | Posted June 18, 2007
Posted in: Ever Wondered?, Life Science
Tags: , , ,

Despite the frigid, ice covered landscape of Northern Canada and Alaska, the Inuits remain warm beneath parkas of animal hide. Warm and…tan. Despite barely seeing the light of day, the native people’s skin retains a bronze glow.

Even in the early 20th century, scientists were trying to understand and map skin color. Felix Von Luschan, a doctor and anthropologist, created a Human Skin Colour Distribution containing 36 different color tiles to characterize skin tones. The further a person’s ancestors are from the equator, the fairer the person’s skin should be, according to his scale.

More recently, Penn State anthropologists Nina Jablonski and George Chaplin wrote in a 2000 edition of Science that there is a correlation between the skin color in people residing in an area for more than 500 years and their exposure to ultraviolet light. They even came up with an equation that determined the pigments of a population based on sun exposure and length of time spent living in an area. But neither their nor Von Luschan’s research answered the question of an Inuk’s bronze complexion without exposure to a great deal of sun.

Jablonski and Chaplin were onto something though, when they realized that the body’s interaction with UV rays from the sun, was tied together with skin tone. Skin color is determined genetically. Genes tell the body how much of the two types of melanin, the pigment that helps to determine the skin color, to produce. Pheomelanin causes reddish yellow pigments, and eumelanin gives deep brown coloring. But skin tone is not all genetic: more melanin is produced when you are out in the sun. Sunlight exposure causes the optic nerve to signal the pituitary glad to release more melanin. Thus, you tan.

Ultraviolet, or UV rays, from the sun are responsible for activating the melanin. As melanin levels rise and our body’s natural pigment darkens, protection against the sun’s rays increases. Too much UV exposure can deplete vitamin B folate –used by the cells to create DNA. On a smaller scale, the rays can also cause painful sunburns, with too much exposure leading to cancer.

However, UV rays aren’t all bad for us: they naturally convert cholesterol into Vitamin D, which is crucial in protecting the body against certain cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and mental illnesses.

When the ancestors of modern man separated from apes, they were covered in hair. Little UV light reached their skin and as a result, anthropologists believe they were fair skinned. As modern humans evolved however, their body hair became finer and thinner, leaving their skin more exposed to the equatorial sun. To adapt, thier bodies produced more melanin to protect them from damaging UV rays. Increased melanin made their skin become darker.

As early humans started migrating north into Europe and east into Asia, they were exposed to different amounts of sun. Those who went north found their dark skin worked against them–preventing them from absorbing enough sunlight to create vitamin D. To adapt, these humans started producing less melanin.

But Inuits vitamin D intake wasn’t dependent upon the sun. They get all that they need from their diet, heavy on types of fatty fish that are naturally rich in vitamin D. The plentiful amounts of the vitamin kept them from developing less melanin. In fact, before milk was fortified with D, people living outside of Northern Canada and Alaska loaded their diets with fishy products, such as cod liver oil, to get their daily supplement. So despite their chilly climate and lack of sun exposure, it’s the Inuit diet that has kept them in their natural glow.

Editor’s note: The content of this story has been changed based on a readers comment about the plural and singular usage of the word Inuit. Where ‘Inuit’ was originally referencing a single person, the world has been changed to Inuk.

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  1. I just wanted to clarify something with you. Inuit is the plural word for Inuk. Inuk is one person, Inuit is a group of people. So Inuits does not make any sense, you are double pluralizing this word. The people of Canada’s north are the Inuit. My friend is an Inuk.
    Thank you.

    Karen Prentice, June 18, 2007 at 2:31 pm
  2. interesting. we were having a similar discussion in another forum. but does this mean that the human dna will tend to produce color in its skin as long as it can get vitamin D? since the mealnin is not necessary due to the fish diet.

    does this also mean that “white” people are the product of a vitamin deficiency?

    stylemaster, January 13, 2008 at 2:08 am
  3. Ok, but what about ‘black’ people; what does this say about their diet/UV absorbtion ?

    Mike, March 10, 2008 at 6:54 pm
  4. Inuits as well as other Native Americans are likely to have come from the tropical pacific,as told in their own legends,thus why there are relatively dark skin;they of course have mongol blood mixture.

    Mana, March 15, 2008 at 6:19 am
  5. Along this vein,if ones looks at pre 1900 photos
    of the Sami of Scandinavia one can see that their
    skin was quite dark.Marriage with Europeans has lightened them considerably.

    JoeMan, April 18, 2008 at 5:39 am
  6. heyy! imin grade 6 and im studying about inuits at school! i think that was a great question! wish me luck byee:D

    Student #1, October 14, 2008 at 3:15 pm
  7. wow you actually put this on the web hahahahaha

    kim, December 1, 2009 at 4:03 pm
  8. Worked in the Cold North for a while, outdoors of course, got snow blindness, and a very copper tan on my face from it! Look at the faces of those brave folks who climb mountains, they often get quite markedly copper colored tans? Can the amount and type of U.V. radiation also have effect on skin color, even if only temporary? What color is an Inuk that lives in the south for a generation? Any change? Lightening? larger bodies? I notice people of the far north are all ‘small” compared to those in the U.S.A.? My imagination? Which is the more sustainable the Inuk or the 350 pound Yankee Doodle in his air conditioned oil supported lifestyle? Are their “races” within mankind? Is the Great Hulking American Neanderthal,(no bigger bones than his founsd in all antiquity), product of over 200 years force feeding by corporate interests for the rapid exploitation of the resources of North America considered one? Is he really at his extinction point regardless of his color? has he really passed his EROI point and become unsustainable, in all shades and colors? Does he come in white and black only? Will the sustainable Inuk supersede him as he stands in “unemployables’ lines waiting on certain extinction?

    Uncle B, January 9, 2010 at 11:33 am
  9. hey wassup people just lettin u now <3 the site lol

    bob, September 2, 2010 at 1:56 am
  10. To sum up, Inuit have dark skin because:

    1. They do not need to produce vitamin D, because they get it from their diet.
    2. The solar radiation that produces vitamin D in humans does not actually reach the Earth where the Inuit live – above 50 degrees latitude, that specific UV radiation filters out.
    3. But the harmful, more energetic UV radiation still reaches the Earth for part of the year (the sunny part) where the Inuit live and so they need darker pigmentation to protect them (it bounces off the water, the ice and the snow in their environment, making their exposure pretty high).
    4. The Inuit descended from Asian groups who also had darkly pigmented skin.

    Randompato, October 21, 2010 at 2:57 pm
  11. because they are descended from asian immigrants

    jay, November 3, 2010 at 11:34 am
  12. I don’t believe the Vitamin D explanation is true. All people who live along shorelines and coastal areas historically eat alot of fish but they are not all dark. How come “The plentiful amounts of the vitamin” didn’t keep people living in Norwegian or Russian fishing villages from developing less melanin?

    Nila, January 30, 2011 at 7:05 pm
  13. Hello andrew its me the ocean how r u 2day?

    kaleb, February 7, 2011 at 2:43 pm
  14. Explain why the seafood eating northern Europeans are white?

    Scott, March 23, 2012 at 10:46 am
  15. I read that they’ve only been there for 6,000 years and it takes 24,000 years for a group to become white. They are still a little light.

    Raw Vegan, September 18, 2012 at 10:07 pm
  16. They (all native peoples in North America) evolved in central Asia which explains not only why they are dark skin and have dark eyes whilst living in the north but why all native people look alike no matter where they live in North America. Native people in the arctic and those in South America as far down as Argentina are of the same skin colour and have the same hair texture and racila features. The distance between the arctic and Argentina is like that between Scandinavia and central Africa on the longitudinal map. Hence it would only make sense that all natives (inuit) included came from a common ancestrial homeland.

    MasterWooten, January 21, 2013 at 10:32 am
  17. Medicine is full of correlations and leaping to conclusions about them.
    Nobody knows how Vitamin D works in the body though it does seems to be important.
    Nobody understands Vitamin D generation in the body. Why is a vital hormone produced according the vagaries of how people dress or where they migrate to? Ridiculous on the face of it.
    This article is speculation though entertaining.

    Adam, February 26, 2013 at 2:51 pm
  18. I have no clue why so much time and effort is expended towards these subjects. It must require a great deal of funding or grants to pay for such studies by ‘researchers’. The traditional wisdom of these people has always proven, at some point to be so far off the mark to make it completely useless. Skin color is no different from why bears and wolves look different. It is a combination of tens of thousands of years of genetic mixes. The theories about vitamin uptake and stimulation of melanin are near inconsequential. Just as blue eyed people are designated as genetic anomalies, so is skin color. These questions, for example, would rate on the same scale as to why some people are bald and some are not. Is this because of the climate zones as well? In actual physical conditions, dark skinned peoples’ climate isnt a factor when you consider the theories of sun and vitamin and melanin none of these great researchers’ can agree on anything. A perfect example is the theory the Native Americans came to North America via the ice bridge from Siberia to Alaska 13,500 years ago. None of the Native peoples believed any of this. Now we know from the Topper Site on the east bank of the Savannah River and another dig in southeastern Tennessee, there are Native artifacts carbon dated at over 50,000 years. And from these discoveries further research has proven there are no clovis points in Siberia. You dont really believe a group of people would migrate without their tools do you? The things we do know about the Native People of North America is the much used phrase, “They took nothing and left only footprints”. If you want a theory to look at, take for example with the recent discoveries of more and more advanced civilizations and what happened to those people, the possibility there were many advanced civilizations that destroyed themselves with technology and for 50,000 years, brilliant indigenous peoples decided, “We have the knowledge and the technology to rebuild these advanced civilizations but we arent going to do that again!” Im only saying so many of these theories are contrary to the passed down knowledge of indigenous people. They wont listen to the people whose ancestors have orally passed down this knowledge. If you want to get to the facts or the basis of something you simply go to the source unless you simply need grant money for a payday. No one is interested in simple answers to simple problems. As part Native American, I am constantly amused at these so called experts theories and just sit and wait for all their prestigious accomplishments to become laughable.

    Bearded Wolf Teneska, July 31, 2013 at 7:06 am
  19. I don’t agree with scientists’ hypothesis that human beings were fair skinned in their early stages because they were covered with hair. Yes, I do believe that hair can protect from the sun’s natural rays. For instance, I am African. Most black ethnic groups have afro textured hair when it’s in its natural state. The thickness,texture, pattern, and manner in which my natural hair strands grow make the sun impenetrable. I have more protection than someone who has straight hair, and all those in between. If I were to shave though, my scalp might be slightly lighter than my face but certainly not fair.

    Vanessa, October 25, 2013 at 6:53 pm
  20. “Sunlight exposure causes the optic nerve to signal the pituitary glad to release more melanin. Thus, you tan.” –

    Does this mean that in theory you could go out into the sun all day with your eyes closed and not get a tan at all?

    Josh, November 10, 2013 at 8:56 pm
  21. Im actually in favor of this research. There are alot of emotionally driven ideas in undereducated people of different races that cause hatred, crime, and egocentrism. Blacks, whites, arabs and hispanics all have theories that elevate their races and villifies the other. When scientifically, we are all very different but part of one evolving species. (although survival of the fittest doesnt really aplly anymore in the modern world)

    Dave, January 1, 2014 at 1:43 pm
  22. This type of science is not logical. There are many questions not answered by this theory. I don’t believe skin color has anything to do with the latitude of the people, this article does not convince me.

    Virginia, April 18, 2014 at 7:25 am
  23. Would one be correct to say that fire is a source of UV and would convert vitamin D as previously experienced by long winter months versus heat (propane)that is preferred today? Another point families undressed allowing the heat from the fires to purge the organs of toxicity while sweating.

    Mike F, June 29, 2014 at 7:41 am
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