Research conducted at the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine in Hershey has found that all instances of a gene mutation that contributed to light skin color in Europeans can be traced to one individual who most likely lived about 10,000 years ago. Keith Cheng, distinguished professor of pathology at Penn State, earlier found that one amino acid difference in one gene is the key contributor in skin color differences between Europeans and West Africans. Light skin color provided an evolutionary advantage for people in northern climates because people with light skin can absorb more vitamin D from sunlight which is not abundant at certain times of year at those latitudes. Vitamin D is known to help build stronger bones, develop a stronger immune system, and may help fight cancer and heart disease.
Dr. Cheng and colleagues identified the gene mutation which is found in most people of European ancestry but not in high numbers of Africans. The mutation was also found among people in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. In fact, the region where the highest percentage of people have the mutation is between the Middle East and India. So the one individual who first had the mutation is likely to have lived in this region and this person’s ancestors then spread to Europe and India.