The Norse Origins Of The Red Hair Gene

For some time there has been quite a debate among scholars regarding the origins of the red hair gene. According to some, the gene for red hair is inherent to the Celts, while others claim it to be a genetic trait specific to the Norsemen, being brought to the British Isles during the Viking Age. There is also a third category of historians and scientists who agree on a common Celto-Germanic genetic trait, rather than a separate origin for the gene.

What are the causes behind red hair?


Scientifically speaking, red hair is the result of a recessive genetic trait which has been caused by a series of mutations in the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R), a gene which is located on chromosome 16. Being a recessive genetic trait means that both parents must cary the gene in order for their children to be born red haired.

An interesting aspect of this gene is that there are far many carriers of it than people who are actually born with red hair. For instance, Scotland — which is reputed for being one of the homelands of the red hair gene alongside Ireland and Wales — has a rate of 13% of its total population with red hair, as opposed to roughly 40% who actually carry the gene. The red hair gene is very rare worldwide, with only 0.6% of the world population sharing this genetic trait.

Where is red hair most common?


The highest rate of frequency for red hair can be traced to Ireland (ranging from minimum 10% to maximum 30%), Scotland (ranging from minimum 10% to maximum 25%), Wales (ranging from minimum 10% to maximum 15%). As such, one might conclude that the Celts are actually responsible for the red hair gene.

Nonetheless, when referring to the European frequency of red hair, just after Wales one could consider southwest Norway in this top as well. According to Professor Donna Heddle, the director for both the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Centre for Nordic Studies and a leading expert on the Norse, the red hair gene from Scotland is actually part of the Norsemen’s heritage.

Did the Vikings actually bring the red hair gene to the British Isles?


Professor Donna Heddle also explained that the perception according to which the invading Viking raiders of the British Isles were blond is nothing more but a mere misconception. According to the same theory, the Norsemen were likely red headed. This may be true, at least in part. Not that many Viking warriors were naturally blond, indeed. In fact, blond hair was very much sought after in Viking Age Scandinavia and many Norsemen dyed their hair blond.

On this note Professor Donna Heddle stated for The Scotsman:

‘The perception that the Norse were blond is nothing more than a prevalent myth. Genetically speaking, the chances of them having blond hair weren’t that likely. The chances are that they would have had red hair. Interestingly, if you look at where red hair occurs in the world you can almost map it to Viking trading routes.’

Detailed map of trade routes and territorial possessions of the Norsemen during the Viking Age. Map designed by Bogdan Giușcă for Wikipedia in 2005. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Detailed map of trade routes and territorial possessions of the Norsemen during the Viking Age. Map designed by Bogdan Giușcă for Wikipedia in 2005. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

And indeed, this actually holds up to be true even to these days. For example, if we are to take a look at the areas in Ireland where the Norsemen settled, we can also see the highest concentration of red haired Irish people. The Viking warriors who settled coastal parts of both Scotland and Ireland were mainly of Norwegian descent (shortly followed by Danish Vikings as well).

Frequency and distribution of the red hair gene in Europe. Image source: www.eupedia.com

Frequency and distribution of the red hair gene in Europe. Image source: www.eupedia.com

Furthermore, it has been recently discovered that southwest Norway may well be the actual place of origin for the red hair as the gene was successfully linked to the paternal Y-DNA haplogroup R1b-L21, which includes one of its sub-clades defined as R1b-M222 — one that is very common for both northwestern Ireland and Scotland.

Distribution of Y-DNA (paternal lineage) R1b haplogroup in Europe. Image source: www.eupedia.com

Distribution of Y-DNA (paternal lineage) R1b haplogroup in Europe. Image source: www.eupedia.com

A famous Norwegian Viking by the name Eiríkr Þorvaldsson (Erik Thorvaldsson) who was born born in the Jæren district of Rogaland, southern Norway in mid 10th century subsequently got renowned as Erik the Red because of the colour of his hair and beard. He is recounted in the Icelandic sagas as the first Norse settler in Greenland.

In conclusion, analysing the maps from above can hopefully solve the mystery concerning the true origins of the red hair gene and possibly debunk a few myths regarding the Norse culture and the Viking Age in general.

Documentation sources and external links:


32 Responses to The Norse Origins Of The Red Hair Gene

  1. Roger Garwick Iverson says:

    I am of Norwegian heritage oaternaly, German maternal. Wife German and small percentage native American she is brunette, daughter one son and me are blonde, one son a red head. I want all of this I can get!!

    • A 'True' Miller of the Northern Region says:

      The Blondish Red hair pigments are a Scandinavian/Norse cross breading , the brownish hair pigments are possible Gall (although some say the original people of England , origins ‘unknown’ , had the brown pigment all along). The Normands brought the straight black hair pigments to the U.K. , this is known fact.

      • OtherSheeps says:

        If by Gaul you mean Celt… the Celts weren’t brunettes. Davies in Celtic Researches says the Irish nation has the same tribes that were known to be Belgic. The Belgae were blonde.

        Cunliffe in The Ancient Celts mentions the fact that the Ora Maritima says the land beyond the tin isles was taken from the Ligurians by the Celts. This would make the Ligurians the Aboriginal long-barrow long-heads.

        Lucan says the Ligurians were auburn-haired. But the Ligurians were a huge set of tribes, and Strabo says Iberia used to be called Liguria. Ligurians stretched from what is now called Liguria up to the Alps, through Gascony, up the Loire to the place of the Pictones, and were directly related to the Armoricans and Cornishmen and Welsh according to the Cymry, and were the earliest people in Scotland and Ireland… so not all of Ligurians were aburn-haired.

        The Ligues in Greek are called Ligures in Romanized Latin, and the Salyes in Greek became the Silures in Tartessos and Albion. The Blood-Grouping done at the coalfields of Wales, in 1965, makes the latter connection, and shows the Welsh miners to be type O, with the supervisory staff as type A of the Norse.

        • Beaker says:

          Irish people, along with the Welsh, are the least blond of the peoples of the Isles. The most common hair colour is dark brown, followed by mid and light brown. Red is about 10% and blonde about %15. Genetics show the Irish primarily descend from the prehistoric people of around 2000 BC, long before the ‘Celtic’ era. There is very little evidence of any ‘Celtic’ migrations of any scale.. Some Belgae did migrate to southern England.

      • GR the Norman says:

        Normans were Norse from Scandinavia. Since when did Scandinavians have straight black hair? Your “known fact” is only known to you.

    • A'True' Miller of the Northern Region says:

      The true ‘beginnings’ of the red haired and brown eyed Norse was supposedly originated from a mythical island off of the northern islands of Ireland about 12000 to 16000 years ago (some call Baii Hala , I only know that the ii’s means water). Digest that how ever you may.

  2. John Harold says:

    Highly unlikely Nordic redheads left in such great numbers that they became rarer in their”homeland” than elsewhere. Plus the gene flow would have worked both ways (slaves,allies, marriage etc.) In Roman times the Celts were already famous for their red hair. So much so that when Caligula had Celtic captives dragged through the streets by the hair in a triumphal march he had the non-redheads (majority) dyed to fit the stereotype.Long before that, the ancient Greeks descibed the Celts as having hair the colour of “burnished bronze”. It does seem to accompany the haplogroups associated with Celts but is not exclusive to them; the Udmurts and Genghis Ghan´s clan being a case in point. I`m sure Nordics have their fair share of old-time redheads but I think it`s almost certainly a mistake to ascribe its origins to them!

    • Devon says:

      Don’t quote me on this, but I seem to remember almost everything I’ve read about Celts pre-Ireland as described by the Greeks as being tall, blonde, and blue eyed.

      • A 'True' Miller of the Northern Region says:

        Tall, Blonde Hair, Blue Eyes – that is the Arians (or Scandinavians) , not the Galls.

    • norman boyle says:

      Yes, if the majority left Norway then there should be some historical references. It makes more sense for migrations to reach these various locations much earlier.

    • angela fleming says:

      its called auburn.

    • OtherSheeps says:

      Thank you! … I feel the same way about what they call the DNA gene flow of R1b. The area with the greatest saturation must be where the gene originated. They show us charts with R1b the heaviest at the iceage refuge, at the foot of the Pyrenees… but they tell us it came from the Pontic Steppes… when they’re not telling us it came from Central Asia. ……. Is it possible that Cro-Magnon man is R1b?

  3. Geoffrey Sea says:

    It is pure hucksterism to cut off the map of red hair at the Urals, when the partial map clearly indicates an increasing gradient as one moves further east into Kazakhstan and Mongolia, where red hair frequently occurs as everyone knows who has traveled there. Did the Vikings invade Central Asia? Obviously not.

    Red hair also occurs with some frequency in Ethiopia. Did the Vikings invade Ethiopia?

    The answer is that the red hair trait is much older than commonly assumed. It marked some group that migrated out of Africa to the region of the Pontic Steppe, and from there traveled east to Mongolia, north to the Viking lands, and west with the Celts.

    • Sean Clarke says:

      Bjorn Ironside did invade North Africa, Italy, Cecily, Greece, and traded with the Persian Empire hence the Varagian Guard. They also found a jade Budda in Norway and a wedding ring in Sweden with Aribac writing with the word Ala on it. Also don’t forget Kevian Russ and the Russian trade routes. When they were not racing they were trading and exploring. There you go.

      • Sean Clarke says:

        Rading not racing. Spell check strikes again.

      • Tatiana Sorosky says:

        Thank you the Kievan-Rus’ were a major trade route & because of the Black Sea- a great place to learn & live. I am a redhead whose history dates back to Kievan-Rus which to be fair is Ukrainian & then later broke from the Principality & became Ukrainian & Muscovite or Russians. Never stop asking questions or researching – never know what you may find!

    • A 'True' Miller of the Northern Region says:

      First Off , a lot of those people were ‘imitating’ their invaders when dying their hair red ; and Secondly , the only other region were red coloured hair (although much darker pigment) exists normally is actually in India.

    • Matthildur says:

      Vikings originated in the north east. Like 10.000 years ago. The storys of Odin and Áshard are ansestrual memmorys vith a lot of farytails for children.
      Personally I think that the higher level of Nandertal dna then you have higher % of read hear.
      In my family we have lots of reds. But we don’t really get cold. One day somone will connect this 2 things.

    • Emma White says:

      Really interesting you should mention that. Our family story is that a redheaded Jew from the Ural region came over and married into our family. We only have a black and white picture of her though, so I always thought it was a fairytale! But yes you can even get red-haired Australian aborigines! I doubt the Vikings got that far!!

  4. Chris Townley says:

    I was wondering how the Romans describe the Celts of their era. I have a vague recollection of them being referred to as having red hair, and also liking to dye their hair as well.

    • Grumpy Historian says:

      The ‘Celts’ were famous for red hair in Roman times. Boadicea would be the most notable example.

      • OtherSheep says:

        Yep. The Bolgi/Belgae came from Central Asia, where the Scuth/Sacae are often known to be red-heads… the Coranians sat where your queen ruled.

        But “Celt” is a used and abused term… that used to mean forest-dweller, which morphed to mountain-top-dweller, that came to mean swirl-maker… that now is defined by the universities as people who speak a Celtic language–they say this right down the hall from where the Celtic Languages are being taught.

  5. Clare Elliott says:

    Is it more plausible that the red hair gene predates the Roman Empire and follows the route that early humans occupied these places.

  6. Cromagnon man had blonde and red hair.
    So did the Guanches of the Canaries as some of the Berbers in the Atlas mountains still do today.
    It is now proposed that the Celts originated in south west Iberia ( Portugal s Algarve region and adjoining Spain). Quite possibly from a very old race indeed, and diffused out from there.

  7. Deborah A Lewis says:

    This is great information.

  8. Harmandeep Singh says:

    OH MY GOSH! Thank You to the person who wrote this! I was proven wrong in a debate about vikings having red hair and this article will help me redeem myself! THANK YOU!

  9. Martin says:

    In the Eddas, red hair is associated with free landowning farmers. While blond hair is associated with jarls and rulers.

  10. Irene says:

    I have red hair and blue eyes and 27% Scandavian DNA. My mothers father and brothers were tall and blonde. Her sister who died young was a red head, a distant cousin through my great grandfather was a red head. My eldest granddaughter is strawberry blonde
    The Normans went through Shackleford which was a village then, Shackleford is my mothers maiden name
    My mother took after her mother and was dark hair believe Scottish descent. Tracked our Shackleford’s to early 1700’a in Swallowfield, l know there were Shacklefords in Shackleford and some went to Berkshire and some to America in the 1600’a
    My father is of half Irish descent back past the famine some blonde but no red heads that I know of except me on that side both my parents have brown eyes, I suspect somet of my ancestors may be Viking

  11. Grumpy Historian says:

    Yeah, I’m not buying this. As far as Europe goes, The Celtic peoples of Wales, Scotland and Ireland were famous for red and/or ginger hair long, long before the Norse invasions. Boadicea ringing any bells? Only of the most famous redheads in history?

    Its more likely it went the other way. That the proliferation of red hair in places like Scandinavia is due to the Vikings taking slaves from Ireland and Scotland.

    Of course I can’t speak for the rest of the world. Red hair crops up in Africa and Asia as well. I very much doubt that can be attributed to Norsemen.

  12. Ellen Hopman says:

    Neanderthals had the red hair gene. It is far older than the Vikings.

  13. Vemund says:

    The hair-colour discussion –
    Walking Norwegian grounds we often refer to redheads as the stereotype body hair colour of the Scots and Irish. The Celtic people have linked to Norway in the past as seen by bronze tools uncovered here, and predated to before the viking era. Metal origin likely from the British isles. May be the Dogger Land once linked between. Norwegian iron was traded by theory to Romans. Both our trade and ship designs may be inter-mixed with a hand of the Breton sea tribes and Romans involved. Anyway, we have also the Ottoman pirate and Admiral Barbarossa (Latin/Italian Red Beard), who wrote a set of memoirs (a unknown stored state treasure in Turkey) about his rule at sea in the Mediterranean. (Yes, they exist!). We know the story of Harald Hardraade, claiming the British throne and returned dead to Nidaros (Trondheim) 1066. He was a leader of the Varangian guard in Miklagard (Constantinople) and a fierce warrior. And plenty more norsemen served there south, even in a solo Norwegian crusade 1107-1110 by king Sigurd Jorsalfar. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norwegian_Crusade

    Additionally, in Norway, we have mixed with the Samii people, which again in some areas are connected to the Finnish.

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