Human Evolution

, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 141–153

Geographic distribution of human skin colour: A selective compromise between natural selection and sexual selection?

  • P. Frost

DOI: 10.1007/BF02437260

Cite this article as:
Frost, P. Hum. Evol. (1994) 9: 141. doi:10.1007/BF02437260


Modern humans have been shaped by the cumulative action of natural selection, non-adaptive random change, and sexual selection. The last of these is not universal and has prevailed in one of two circumstances: (1) A surplus of females due to high male mortality, combined with ecological constraints on female participation in food procurement which discourage males from taking second wives; (2) A surplus of single males due to generalized polygyny with relatively low male mortality. These circumstances are most likely to occur in (1) Arctic tundra environments, specifically the vast expanse of tundra covering most of Europe up to 10,000 B.P., and in (2) regions dominated by generalized polygyny, notably sub-Saharan Africa. Sexual selection often acts on existing sex differences, including perhaps sexual dimorphism in human skin colour. Whereas women are universally fairer in complexion, men are browner and ruddier; parallel to this, most human societies see lighter skin as more feminine and darker skin as more masculine. Hence, sexual selection should favour lighter pigmented women when a surplus of single females must compete for a mate. Since skin colour is only mildly sex-linked, both sexes would lighten in pigmentation within the population in question. Similarly, when a surplus of single males must compete for a mate, both sexes would darken. Geographic variation in human skin colour may thus represent a selective compromise between two counterbalancing forces: natural selection, as determined by latitudinal variation in sunlight; and sexual selection, as determined by variations in the following: male mortality rates, incidence of polygyny, and ecological constraints on female participation in food procurement.

Key words

Skin ColourSexual DimorphismSexual SelectionUpper PalaeolithicMesolithic

Copyright information

© International Institute for the Study of Man 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • P. Frost
    • 1
  1. 1.Département d'AnthropologieUniversité LavalSainte-FoyCanada