Red hair (also referred to as ginger or titian) varies from a deep orange-red through burnt orange to bright copper. It is characterized by high levels of the reddish pigment pheomelanin and relatively low levels of the dark pigment eumelanin. People with red hair are often referred to as redheads. Approximately 1% to 2% of the human population has red hair. It occurs more frequently (between 2% and 6% of the population) in northern and western Europeans, and their descendants, and at lower frequencies throughout other parts of Europe, Asia and Africa. Red hair appears in people with two copies of a recessive gene on chromosome 16 which causes a change in the MC1R protein. It is associated with fair skin color, freckles, and sensitivity to ultraviolet light, as the mutated MC1R protein is found in the skin and eyes instead of the darker melanin. Cultural reactions have varied from ridicule to admiration; many common stereotypes exist regarding redheads, and they are often portrayed as the “fiery-tempered redhead”.
Red hair has also been found in Asia, notably among the Tocharians who occupied the northwesternmost province of what is modern-day China. The 2nd millennium BC caucasian Tarim mummies in China were found with red and blonde hair and most likely were of European origin.
Redheads constitute approximately four percent of the European population. Scotland has the highest proportion of redheads, as 13 percent of the population has red hair and approximately 40 percent carries the recessive redhead gene. Ireland has the second highest percentage; as many as 10 percent of the Irish population have red, auburn, or strawberry blond hair. It is thought that up to 46 percent of the Irish population carries the recessive redhead gene. Red hair reaches frequencies of up to 10 percent in Wales. In England, the county of Cornwall, the far north, near the Scottish border, and the counties of Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire also have significant proportions of redheads.
In the United States, anywhere from two to six percent of the population is estimated to have red hair. This would give the U.S. the largest population of redheads in the world, at 6 to 18 million, compared to approximately 650,000 in Scotland and 420,000 in Ireland.
Red or reddish-tinged hair is also found in other European populations particularly in the Nordic and Baltic countries as well as parts of the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Russia and Southeastern Europe.
In Asia, darker or mixed tinges of red hair can be found sporadically from Northern India, northern Middle East (such as Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Jordan,) and in rare instances in Japan and the South Pacific. Red hair can be found amongst those of Iranian descent, such as the Pashtuns.
The pigment pheomelanin gives red hair its distinctive color. Red hair has far more pheomelanin than other hair colors, but far less of the dark pigment eumelanin.
The genetics of red hair, discovered in 1997, appears to be associated with the melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R), which is found on chromosome 16. Red hair is associated with fair skin color due to low concentrations of eumelanin. This lower melanin-concentration has the advantage that a sufficient concentration of important Vitamin D can be produced under low light conditions. However, when the UV-radiation is strong (like in the regions close to the equator) the lower concentration of melanin leads to several medical disadvantages - one of them is the higher rate of skin cancer.
The MC1R recessive variant gene, which gives people red hair and fair skin, is also associated with freckles, though it is not uncommon to see a redhead without freckles. Eighty percent of redheads have an MC1R gene variant, and the prevalence of these alleles is highest in Scotland and Ireland. The alleles that code for red hair occur close to the alleles that impact skin color, so it seems that the phenotypic expression for lighter skin and red hair are interrelated.
Red hair can originate from several different changes on the MC1R-gene. If one of these changes is present on both chromosomes then the respective individual is likely to have red hair. This type of inheritance is described as an autosomal recessive mode of inheritance. Even if both parents do not have red hair themselves, both can be carriers for the gene and have a redheaded child. (red hair genetics).
Harding et al. (2000) proposed that red hair was not the result of positive selection but rather occurs due to a lack of negative selection. In Africa, for example, red hair is selected against because high levels of sun would be harmful to fair skin. However, in Northern Europe this does not happen, so redheads come about through genetic drift.
Estimates on the original occurrence of the currently active gene for red hair vary from 20,000 to 100,000 years ago.
A DNA study has concluded that some Neanderthals also had red hair, although the mutation responsible for this differs from that which causes red hair in modern humans.
Red hair is caused by a recessive relatively rare gene, expression of which can skip generations. It is not likely to disappear at any time in the foreseeable future.
Red hair and its relationship to UV sensitivity are of interest to many melanoma researchers. Sunshine can both be good and bad for a person's health and the different alleles on MC1R represent these adaptations. It also has been shown that individuals with pale skin are highly susceptible to a variety of skin cancers such as melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma. Due to this sensitivity many people have advised redheads to wear sunscreen. However it is becoming increasingly apparent that sunscreen protects against sunburn only and not against malignant melanoma; the FDA has proposed changing SPF to refer to "Sunburn Protection Factor" instead of "Sun Protection Factor" (page49089,49079 and 49077)(FDA proposed changes).
Two studies have demonstrated that people with red hair have differential sensitivity to pain compared to people with other hair colors, but they differ as to the direction of the effect. One study found that people with red hair are more sensitive to thermal pain (a natural low vitamin K level is to blame for this) while another study concluded that redheads are less sensitive to pain from electrical stimuli.
Researchers have found that people with red hair require greater amounts of anesthetic, however this is controversial and other research publications have concluded that women with naturally red hair require less of the painkiller pentazocine than do either women of other hair colors or men of any hair color. A study showed women with red hair had a greater analgesic response to that particular pain medication than men. A follow-up study by the same group showed that men and women with red hair had a greater analgesic response to morphine-6-glucuronide.
In various times and cultures, red hair has been prized, feared, and ridiculed.
During the early stages of modern medicine, red hair was thought to be a sign of a sanguine temperament. In the Indian medicinal practice of Ayurveda, redheads are seen as most likely to have a Pitta temperament.
Another belief is that redheads are highly sexed; for example, Jonathan Swift satirizes redhead stereotypes in part four of Gulliver's Travels, "A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms," when he writes that: "It is observed that the red-haired of both sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest, whom yet they much exceed in strength and activity." Swift goes on to write that: "...neither was the hair of this brute [a Yahoo] of a red color (which might have been some excuse for an appetite a little irregular) but black as a sloe...
Queen Elizabeth I of England was a redhead, and during the Elizabethan era in England, red hair was fashionable for women. In modern times, red hair is subject to fashion trends; celebrities such as Lindsay Lohan, Alyson Hannigan, Marcia Cross and Geri Halliwell can boost sales of red hair dye.
Sometimes, red hair darkens as people get older, becoming a more brownish color or losing some of its vividness. This leads some to associate red hair with youthfulness, a quality that is generally considered desirable. In several countries such as India, Iran, and Pakistan, henna is used on hair to give it a bright red appearance.
Many painters have exhibited a fascination with red hair. The color "titian" takes its name from Titian, who often painted women with red hair. Early Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli's famous painting The Birth of Venus depicts the mythological goddess Venus as a redhead. Other painters notable for their redheads include the Pre-Raphaelites, Edmund Leighton, Modigliani, Gustav Klimt.
Those whose hair is red, of a certain peculiar shade, are unmistakably vampires. It is significant that in ancient Egypt, as Manetho tells us, human sacrifices were offered at the grave of Osiris, and the victims were red-haired men who were burned, their ashes being scattered far and wide by winnowing-fans. It is held by some authorities that this was done to fertilize the fields and produce a bounteous harvest, red-hair symbolizing the golden wealth of the corn. But these men were called Typhonians, and were representatives not of Osiris but of his evil rival Typhon, whose hair was red.
In modern-day UK, despite (or because of) being one of the places with the highest populations of redheads, the words "ginger" or "ginga" are sometimes derogatorily used to describe red-headed people, with terms such as "gingerphobia" (fear of redheads) or "gingerism" (prejudice against redheads) used by the media. Redheads are also sometimes referred to disparagingly as "carrot tops" and "carrot heads". "Gingerism" has been compared to racism, although this is widely disputed and bodies such as the UK Commission for Racial Equality do not monitor cases of discrimination and hate crimes against redheads.A UK woman recently won an award from a tribunal after being sexually harassed and receiving abuse because of her red hair; a family in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, was forced to move twice after being targeted for abuse and hate crime on account of their red hair; and in 2003, a 20 year old was stabbed in the back for "being ginger.
This prejudice has been satirised on a number of TV shows. The British comedian Catherine Tate (herself a redhead) appeared as a red haired character in a running sketch of her series The Catherine Tate Show. The sketch saw fictional character Sandra Kemp, who was forced to seek solace in a refuge for ginger people because they had been ostracised from society. The British comedy Bo' Selecta! (starring redhead, Leigh Francis) featured a spoof documentary which involved a caricature of red-haired "Simply Red" singer Mick Hucknall presenting a show in which celebrities (played by themselves) dyed their hair red for a day and went about daily life being insulted by people. In real life, Hucknall has commented that derogatory references to his red hair are a form of bigotry.
Films and television programmes often portray school bullies as having red hair; for example, Scut Farkus from A Christmas Story or the O'Doyle family in the movie Billy Madison. However, children with red hair are often themselves targeted by bullies; "Somebody with ginger hair will stand out from the crowd," says anti-bullying expert Louise Burfitt-Dons.
Esau's entire body is supposed to have been covered with red hair. King David is also known for having red hair, based on the description of his physical appearance as "admoni", the Biblical Hebrew word normally interpreted to mean 'ruddy' and/or 'red-haired' (1 Samuel 16-17).
Early artistic representations of Mary Magdalene usually depict her as having long flowing red hair, although a description of her hair color was never mentioned in the Bible, and it is possible the color is an effect caused by pigment degradation in the ancient paint. This tradition is used as a plot device in the book and movie The Da Vinci Code. Thor, of Norse mythology, was generally portrayed as having red hair. Ancient Egyptians associated both red-haired humans and red-colored animals with the god Set, considering them to be favored by the powerful and temperamental deity.
There is a tradition amongst astrologers that the planet Mars ("the red planet") is more likely to be rising above the eastern horizon (on or near the astrological Ascendant, which supposedly influences a person's appearance) at the time of the birth of a red haired person than for the population in general.
The name Rhys may have been derived from the local word for red hair.
The Sherlock Holmes story "The Red-Headed League" (1891) was a favourite of its author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and included a sub-plot revolving around a pseudo-society restricted to redheads. The 1840 comic play Der Talisman by Johann Nestroy is about prejudice against redheads.
In Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins, redheads are said to be children of the moon, thwarted by the sun and addicted to sex and sugar. Similarly, in The Illuminatus! Trilogy, green-eyed redheads are said to be the favorite cohorts of The Devil.
In the Harry Potter series, members of the Weasley family all have red hair, as did Lily Potter, Harry Potter's late mother, and Albus Dumbledore (before his hair went white with age). J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, has stated that she is fond of redheads, despite the prejudice she observes they experience in the UK.
The "Darkness" fantasy series by Harry Turtledove includes Algarve, an aggressive and militaristic nation of red-haired, green-eyed people who consider themselves "racially superior" and who brutally persecute as "racially degenerate" people with blond hair and blue eyes.
Howard Roark, the controversial architect who is the main protagonist of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, is a redhead. This is part of his striking appearance, which throughout the book makes some people like him - and others, hate him - on sight. "He wore evening clothes and they looked well on his tall, thin figure, but it seemed that he did not belong in them; his orange hair seemed preposterous with formal dress" ("The Fountainhead", book 2, Ch. 6.)