Life Science

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

- asks Anonymous

June 18, 2007

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, their 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 reader’s comment about the plural and singular usage of the word Inuit. Where ‘Inuit’ was originally referencing a single person, the word has been changed to Inuk.

About the Author



Karen Prentice says:

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.

stylemaster says:

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?

Mike says:

Ok, but what about ‘black’ people; what does this say about their diet/UV absorbtion ?

Mana says:

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.

JoeMan says:

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.

Student #1 says:

heyy! imin grade 6 and im studying about inuits at school! i think that was a great question! wish me luck byee:D

kim says:

wow you actually put this on the web hahahahaha

Uncle B says:

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?

bob says:

hey wassup people just lettin u now <3 the site lol

Randompato says:

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.

jay says:

because they are descended from asian immigrants

Nila says:

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?

kaleb says:

Hello andrew its me the ocean how r u 2day?

Scott says:

Explain why the seafood eating northern Europeans are white?

Raw Vegan says:

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.

MasterWooten says:

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.

Adam says:

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.

Bearded Wolf Teneska says:

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.

Vanessa says:

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.

Josh says:

“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?

Dave says:

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)

Virginia says:

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.

Mike F says:

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.

Gaizupath says:

hmm.. Really interesting. I think the reason of having dark skin of those Inuits is vitamin D intake and the effect of sun rays.

Selina says:

You know every skin tone should be recognized for it’s unique beauty from the lightest to the darkest of human beings. What I find very interestingly strange is that non-white people groups always are being compared to white European skin–and not even the darker Europeans but strangely folks of the whitest pigment in Europe. What’s the point? The point is everyone is considered dark compared to the whitest of Europeans. There are so many varied shades of skin in all ethnicities, regions and races. Yet within those ranges it appears that vast amount of regions produces various shades of brown, olive and tawny pigment. It’s obviously that most of humanity does not have very pale or “white” skin. So it seems pointless to keep comparing most of the world’s skin tones to a hand full of very white skin on the scale of global population. Or if you try comparing everyone to the darkest pigments of Africa, the South Pacific or South East Asia then one would say, “oh they are light skinned.” Isn’t this all subjective and these comparisons are truly off and of very little significance in categorizing people? Now when it comes to language, culture, family history etc., yes people can be categorized on those aspects which is based on behavior and not appearance.

Student of the World says:

Hey! I’m a 6th grader and we are doing a PowerPoint on the Inuit. Can you please tell me what physical region the Inuit live in? Thank you! I can’t find it anywhere on the Internet!

victoria says:

Nenet people and the Fuegians all have dark skin and all live in cold climates, why haven’t they evolved to have white skin? because they don’t need it. there isn’t an advantage to having white skin in those climate. brown skin absorbs just as much sun as white skin up north. these so called scientist are liars.

Tisha says:

The reason why the Inuit & Native Americans have darker skin is because they come from African American descent.

Lenne says:

#28: Tisha: “The reason why the Inuit & Native Americans have darker skin is because they come from African American descent.”

This makes zero sense. African Americans were brought over from Africa only a couple hundred years ago. And they didn’t migrate up to near the North Pole.

Inuit and Native Americans were here for thousands and thousands of years before this continent saw one African coming to America. They don’t even look similar. There is some evidence for people coming over from Asia via the ancient land bridge in the far north, and from crossing the Pacific ocean.

No idea where you got your idea from, that people can be descendants of people who came thousands of years AFTER them.

Mark says:

Another wacky conclusion to be arrived at from this research is that vitamin ‘D’ MILK makes people WHITE!!!!

Richard says:

@Tisha … Africans roamed the world, there’s documented proof that Africans navigated the Americas leaving behind artifacts and other things. Even starting the first Mexican civilization.

Hummus says:

Great comments above.

The more recent discoveries (and the field) of epigenetics, makes it pretty clear to me that simple, basic epigenetic / DNA mutation (which doesn’t mean formation of NEW genes, or NEW things being magically evolved out of nowhere – this is not evolution we’re even talking about here – but just simple adaptation of the genes, and generational genetic transfer), over the course of dozens of generations [I read on wikipedia 25 generations or 2500 years is enough for sizeable change], is all it takes for prolonged sun exposure (under the right sort of conditions) to bring about racial skin color change (either way, or maintain it), without problem.

I’m convinced that the Inuit then have maintained their dark skin because of the HARSH UV they face from the bright white ice (I just googled and did some reading finding that ice reflect I think it was 80% of UV light, whereas sand on beach only 15% and ocean froth only 20%), enough to have to make Inuit bone sunglasses to protect their eyes from burning! Something tells me that’s enough to make their bodies produce PLENTY of melanin (especially when it’s activated by Pituitary gland exposure), and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have to mean they’re naked as a culture to have uniform dark skin either (*especially* when we’re talking about generational adaptation anyway!)

Philip says:

@Victoria Okay. Firstly Nenet people are actually quite pale. They are not at all “brown” as you would have us think, they have a similar skin colour to most Europeans and some Asians.

Secondly, Fuegians, while living in a relatively cold climate live, have close proximity to the ocean, meaning that fish is likely a big part of their diet. Adding to that, Tierra del Fuego is not as far south as Europe is north.

And thirdly, and please pay attention to this. Skin colour has probably NOTHING to do with the climate (hot or cold etc.) as such. It has to do with the amount of sunshine.

Please, Victoria, if you are going to call anyone a liar, at least read the damn article and use your brain next time.

Jason says:

It has been proven that there was A people with African features in america before slavery. Olmec heads, cave paintings in Chicago, statue of a African women. I’m all about my people but I’m pretty sure the evidence speaks for itself. Just YouTube or Google these facts. There was dark skin people in all of the Americas before Christopher Columbus. Don’t accuse people of lying when that’s what it seems scientist been doing throughout history. Let’s end the race war with fact. My opinion they are a mix between African and oriental. Also come to find out original oriental was dark skin. I’m not trying to argue but it’s everywhere on the web. I guess thTs why Rockafella said the Internet will do more harm then good

Proof Reader says:

“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” You spelled “their” two different ways in this sentence. I recommend that you use the free spell check or hire my services.

Xolani says:

I know with no doubt certainly having a satisfaction of to true that Whites and Blacks are no different,of that now apart from saying to my brothers you are equal to whites but their white simply because of ‘Out of Africa hypothesis’ so and so.
Thanks it means a lot.

Denise says:

We must remember the pervasiveness of American racism when we read history. This idea that Africans were only in huts and pre-literate is an image imposed on Africans and Europeans alike. Now the question was, Why are the Native Americans dark skinned? (No asks why aren’t their eyes slanted either; nothing wrong with slanted eyes just an observation). Melanin is obviously present in Native American skin at a higher level than the yellow-hued Chinese. So the knee-jerk reaction that it can’t possibly be because of Africans is an emotional defense of white supremacy. So long as African explorations, and really anything that concedes African greatness prior to, during and after the American slavery epoch, are hidden from the world, we will be maintaining the systematic oppression of black people everywhere. There is hard evidence of the presence of Africans in America prior to Columbus dragging them here.

Cynthia Allen McLaglen says:

Inuit, who live in a snow and ice covered environment, have light reflected upon their faces all the time that the sun shines so that is the reason they would keep their protective skin hue. They do – as others have pointed out, eat meat which gives them a rich diet which is then supplemented in the spring and summer by plants and fruits, another reason that they would not be as stretched or stressed enough for mutations to make the, lighter. This applies to their dark eyes which protects them from burning out their retina in the light covered reflective environment.

GrayExpert says:

Really interesting facts. I believe the reason of having darker skin of those Inuits is vitamin D intake and the effect of sun. By the way Inuit are very interesting “tribe”, they have an interesting history.

This research is inaccurate. Darks skin means you can ABSORB sunlight which. Dans you will get vitamin D. Also European diet also most likely included vitamin D so why did their skin not remain daek like that of the inuits.

kb says:

I think the question is what in their genetics makeup disallows change.

Sandra LaBelle says:

Reflected sunlight from snow might very well increase skin pigmentation…

Jason O'Brien says:

I totally agree with Denise, comment 37. People have to let go of this notion that Africans were sedentary for thousands of years, just sitting in Africa twiddling their thumbs. There is plenty of evidence to the contrary, it just takes a person with the ability to do a little research to understand the truth. President Woodrow Wilson changed much of the educational systems curriculum during his presidency. Many important historical facts were no longer taught in schools because of his racist out look.

There is only one way to obtain dark skin (I’m not referring to a tan) color in any ethnicity, African influence.

Jim Nguyen says:

Some facts we do know. The longer you lie in the sun, the darker you get, this is true even of fair skin. Someone suggested timeline, how many thousands of years for adaptation to turn into evolution? The suggestion of ancestral background is irrelevant since it’s widely hypothesized that all Europeans migrated from Africa. Not all Europeans have blonde hair blue eyes, many have dark hair, such as Italians. So the question is, as Scott mentions, didn’t Europeans eat seafood mostly thousands of years ago?

Lamed says:

There is evidence of African presence in Australia and throughout the far Pacific we see that the original inhabitants were African. There were Africans through our North America as early as 5000 BC. White do not have skin like other humans it is pink like a pig and does not have any advantages or disireability

gavin says:

Perhaps, stop considering why they would migrate to a cold area and think along the lines of they just haven’t moved – The earth has tilted. Think if the earth tilted 40 degrees. The poles would be nearer to the equator and be quite habitable. It also follows the widely accepted theory that darker skin evolves closer to the equator.

Frani says:

Facts: All humans descended from Africa. All humans anywhere on earth outside of africa migrated there. All humans living on earth have some pigmentation, this is why “whites” look more like pink and not ACTUAL white. All the groups that left Africa went through some physical changes, the change depends on which rout the group took. Some groups were able to maintain their dark pigmentation due to their new climate similarities to Africa and vit D rich food (like the Diminutive Africoid people in the Philippines, native Australians, dark people of India, etc). Humans reached a point when they no longer depended only on the sun to make vitami D because we were finding more edibles that has vitamin D. Meaning that if your group started fishing, gathering, farming and eating vit D rich foods, your group then started to maintain the current skin colour it had. Some groups reached this evolution earlier than others. In the middle east, it was farming (this gave them beaf liver, eggs, etc), In the case of Japan, China, Native Americans, etc, it was mainly through fishing. Although very light skin people also started eating fish and other vit D rich food, it was much later, by then their bodies were producing just little pigments compared to other groups to prevent vit D deficiency. So in conclution, whatever natural skin colour you have, not including people of mixed races (because their current natural colour is a result of two or more humans from different groups), is a result of how early your ancestors were able to reach the stage were they were eating edequate vit D rich food and no longer needed only the sun to produce it for them. If you have very dark colour (meaning your body is producing large amount of pigments), this is a natural protection from the sun, but it also means your body may not get enough vit D. it needs. Thankfully, your ancestors reached the stage where they were eating vit D rich foods, and ensuing continuity of their group. It was literary survival of the fitters!

Dr. Zeus says:

I just read the comments for the sociology of it. Thoughts: 1) Scientific literacy is shaky. In a less capitalist world, science teachers would have more autonomy relative to communities and international education reform/software sales campaigns, and people could learn about the role of theory (and contested theory) in the scientific method, epigenetics v. genetics, etc. I appreciate the efforts of people who clarify or further explain the scientific theory that is being briefly introduced in this pop science article. 2) FYI, the number of generations it takes to produce either a highly-reproduced (conserved) mutation (genetics) or methylation/gene suppression or activation (epigenetics) is very variable, depending on what the system is (melanin in the skin organ, for example). So it’s quite plausible that Northern Europeans and some Asians reproduced a low-melanin mutation over a longer period of time than Inuit have lived in the Arctic. As well, as someone above intuits, darker Inuit skin color does not support a couple of anthropologists’ recent ontological-turn theory, or some indigenous Americans’ cosmological-political claim that indigenous Americans have lived in the Americas since the dawn of time. 3) People have a lot of feels about race. Of course. Because it’s an historical social construction that still determines life chances, so: A lot at stake. A lot to claim, police, emote.

Retired says:

I have been able to meet a few Siberian people and they were paler than Europeans without any pinkish undertones. If it takes 20,000 years to change skin tone wouldn’t they already be pale if they are definitively directly related to Siberians and mongolians? There are just too many contradictions

Willy Gauche' says:

Vit D might well play a role in skin colour.I would however like to youry if the sun had an effect on the shape of your nose and eyes? Thinking of the very distinct differance in the noses (broad) in african people and chinese people (slit eyes) compared to the narrow noses and thin lips of white people.Does anyone know where this distinct differance comes from?.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


The Scienceline Newsletter

Sign up for regular updates.