Was skin cancer a selective force for black pigmentation in early hominin evolution?
Melanin provides a crucial filter for solar UV radiation and its genetically determined variation influences both skin pigmentation and risk of cancer. Genetic evidence suggests that the acquisition of a highly stable melanocortin 1 receptor allele promoting black pigmentation arose around the time of savannah colonization by hominins at some 1-2 Ma. The adaptive significance of dark skin is generally believed to be protection from UV damage but the pathologies that might have had a deleterious impact on survival and/or reproductive fitness, though much debated, are uncertain. Here, I suggest that data on age-associated cancer incidence and lethality in albinos living at low latitudes in both Africa and Central America support the contention that skin cancer could have provided a potent selective force for the emergence of black skin in early hominins.