Social factors too determine skin colour of Indians


“Clear differences in skin colour in men and women were seen,” says Kumarasamy Thangaraj (right).

Researchers from CCMB and other international institutions have found that socio-cultural factors had a bigger influence on skin colour variation in Indians than genetics (6.4%) and environmental factors (16%). While the SLC24A5 gene variant rs1426654-A is usually associated with lighter skin colour in most Indian populations, an intriguing pattern was seen in two specific populations studied.

Skin colour variation in Indians is determined not just by the environment and genetics but by sexual selection too. A complex interaction between physical and social forces is responsible for patterns of skin colour seen in males and females in India, says a study by Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CSIR-CCMB), Hyderabad researchers who collaborated with an international team. This result has relevance for DNA forensics and ancient DNA research, the researchers say.

The researchers looked at how skin colour varies between 10 different socio-cultural populations varied within and between the populations in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They also looked at variation in skin colour between males and females within and between populations. Then they studied the influence of ultraviolet radiation on skin colour and finally looked at the variations with respect to genetic data.

The role of social factors

“Our study showed that social factors along with genetics played a strong role in shaping skin colour diversity across India,” says Dr. Kumarasamy Thangaraj from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CSIR-CCMB), Hyderabad and a coauthor of a paper published recently in the American Journal of Human Biology.

Greater pigmentation and hence darker skin helps protect the skin from harmful UV rays near the equator while less pigmentation leading to lighter skin colour promotes season UV ray-induced vitamin D production in people living in higher latitudes. Women generally tend to have lighter skin than men highlighting the importance of cutaneous vitamin D production for enhanced vitamin D absorption during pregnancy and breast feeding.

For the study, the researchers compared the skin colour data of people living in Hyderabad and belonging to five different castes, three castes in Tamil Nadu, and from Brahmins living in Uttar Pradesh and scheduled caste living in Bihar.

Skin colour-OptimizedThe melanin index of people samples in Andhra Pradesh showed wide variation — 33.4 to 53. Three agricultural castes (Kapu, Naidu and Reddy) in the State had similar skin colour while Brahmins had far lighter colour and merchant caste (Vysya) had darker skin. In Tamil Nadu, Brahmins and Saurashtrians had lighter skin colour than pastoralist Yadava caste. Brahmins in Uttar Pradesh had fairer skin than scheduled caste in Bihar, and their melanin index range was nearly similar to their counterparts living in Andhra Pradesh. The melanin index range of scheduled caste in Bihar varied widely — about 46 to 79.

“Clear differences in skin colour in men and women were seen,” says Dr. Thangaraj. Males belonging to the three agricultural castes in Andhra Pradesh showed darker skin than women. Even among Brahmins in the State, women had a lighter colour than men and there is greater difference in skin colour between the sexes. Though the merchant caste (Vysya) had darker skin than the other four, they showed the least difference in skin colour between women and men. The same differences and similarities were seen in the case of Brahmins in Uttar Pradesh and scheduled caste in Bihar.

“We need to undertake a more detailed study by increasing the sample size, analysing few more genetic loci and including specific micro epidemiological factors that might be influencing skin colour for better understanding,” says Dr. Anushuman Mishra on less skin colour difference between women and men among Vysya population. Dr. Mishra is from CCMB and coauthor of the paper.

The environment apparently plays a smaller role (16%) in determining skin colour in Indians, while social factors could explain 42% variation in skin colour. “This result is consistent with the observation that in India skin colour varies markedly even among populations living in the same geographic location,” they write. And the difference in skin colour in two north Indian populations that live close to each other and share important genetic history suggests that population-level variation have a role in skin colour.

Role of gene variant

 In Europeans, the SLC24A5 gene variant rs1426654-A is usually associated with lighter skin colour. While this gene variant had a high correlation with lighter skin in Indians, it did not have the same effect in certain populations. In the case of the scheduled caste population in Bihar, the gene variant was found in “unusually high frequency” despite the population having dark skin. Similarly, in the case of UP Brahmins, despite the frequency of this gene variant being high, it did not have a significant effect on melanin index variation within the population.

“Our study suggests that there could be other genetic variant(s) in scheduled caste population in Bihar that have the ability to override the skin lightening effect of the gene variant rs1426654-A,” says Dr. Thangaraj. “When we look at melanin index and the genetic variant together we find in addition to genetics, the social and environment factors also play a major role in determining the skin colour of a population.”

“In our earlier study in middle Gangetic Plain of India, we have demonstrated that genetic factor decides 6.4%, while social category has 32% influence on skin colour variation. In the latest study too we found 42% skin colour variation is due to social factors, although other factors also play a role,” Dr. Mishra says.

The authors conclude that numerous migrations into India and admixture of populations might have provided sufficient room for novel genetic variants that determine skin colour to emerge and spread among people in India, thus overriding natural selection. And the population-dependent sexual selection for lighter skin and endogamy practiced in India has ensured that skin colour variation has been maintained between different populations.

Published in The Hindu on August 18, 2018


5 thoughts on “Social factors too determine skin colour of Indians

  1. “social factors could explain 42% variation in skin colour”
    Isn’t it the opposite? Skin colour has determined caste and social role and the consequence of it can be observed today?

    • The last para answers the question “And the population-dependent sexual selection for lighter skin and endogamy practiced in India has ensured that skin colour variation has been maintained between different populations.”

  2. As mentioned in the earlier comment: the sampling was so random. Several shades of dark and white skins exits in India. Here they have sampled from brahmin / sc as the mandate which is completely rubbish. Even Sc too have lighter people like brahmins.

    • And that is what the researchers mean by saying melanin index range, where the skin colour varies even within a particular population.

  3. Skin color is known to be associated with Caste or as euphemistically called ‘social factor’ which is why ‘lower castes or sudras’ were portrayed black or dark in mythologies and ‘upper castes or brahmins’ were portrayed fair skinned. But they are not determinants or should not be treated in the same plane as genetics or environment which have a mechanistic linkage with skin color. By putting them on the same category there is an implicit acceptance or approval of caste based ordering. It is a pity that the study does not use proper terminology which is more sensitive to the socio-political history. Also the study does not have proper sampling.

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