Category Archives: Prehistory

Cheddar Man: DNA shows early Briton had dark skin

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Cheddar Man: DNA shows early Briton had dark skin


DNA shows early Brit had dark skin
Image caption DNA shows early Brit had dark skin

A cutting-edge scientific analysis shows that a Briton from 10,000 years ago had dark brown skin and blue eyes.

Researchers from London’s Natural History Museum extracted DNA from Cheddar Man, Britain’s oldest complete skeleton, which was discovered in 1903.

University College London researchers then used the subsequent genome analysis for a facial reconstruction.

It underlines the fact that the lighter skin characteristic of modern Europeans is a relatively recent phenomenon.

No prehistoric Briton of this age had previously had their genome analysed.

As such, the analysis provides valuable new insights into the first people to resettle Britain after the last Ice Age.

The analysis of Cheddar Man’s genome – the “blueprint” for a human, contained in the nuclei of our cells – will be published in a journal, and will also feature in the upcoming Channel 4 documentary The First Brit, Secrets Of The 10,000-year-old Man.

‘Cheddar George’ tweet on early Briton

Cheddar Man’s remains had been unearthed 115 years ago in Gough’s Cave, located in Somerset’s Cheddar Gorge. Subsequent examination has shown that the man was short by today’s standards – about 5ft 5in – and probably died in his early 20s.

Prof Chris Stringer, the museum’s research leader in human origins, said: “I’ve been studying the skeleton of Cheddar Man for about 40 years

“So to come face-to-face with what this guy could have looked like – and that striking combination of the hair, the face, the eye colour and that dark skin: something a few years ago we couldn’t have imagined and yet that’s what the scientific data show.”

Cheddar Man
Image captionA replica of Cheddar Man’s skeleton now lies in Gough’s Cave

Fractures on the surface of the skull suggest he may even have met his demise in a violent manner. It’s not known how he came to lie in the cave, but it’s possible he was placed there by others in his tribe.

The Natural History Museum researchers extracted the DNA from part of the skull near the ear known as the petrous. At first, project scientists Prof Ian Barnes and Dr Selina Brace weren’t sure if they’d get any DNA at all from the remains.

But they were in luck: not only was DNA preserved, but Cheddar Man has since yielded the highest coverage (a measure of the sequencing accuracy) for a genome from this period of European prehistory – known as the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age.

They teamed up with researchers at University College London (UCL) to analyse the results, including gene variants associated with hair, eye and skin colour.

Extra mature Cheddar

They found the Stone Age Briton had dark hair – with a small probability that it was curlier than average – blue eyes and skin that was probably dark brown or black in tone.

This combination might appear striking to us today, but it was a common appearance in western Europe during this period.

Steven Clarke, director of the Channel Four documentary, said: “I think we all know we live in times where we are unusually preoccupied with skin pigmentation.”

Prof Mark Thomas, a geneticist from UCL, said: “It becomes a part of our understanding, I think that would be a much, much better thing. I think it would be good if people lodge it in their heads, and it becomes a little part of their knowledge.”

Unsurprisingly, the findings have generated lots of interest on social media.

Cheddar Man’s genome reveals he was closely related to other Mesolithic individuals – so-called Western Hunter-Gatherers – who have been analysed from Spain, Luxembourg and Hungary.

Dutch artists Alfons and Adrie Kennis, specialists in palaeontological model-making, took the genetic findings and combined them with physical measurements from scans of the skull. The result was a strikingly lifelike reconstruction of a face from our distant past.

Pale skin probably arrived in Britain with a migration of people from the Middle East around 6,000 years ago. This population had pale skin and brown eyes and absorbed populations like the ones Cheddar Man belonged to.

Chris Stringer
Image caption Prof Chris Stringer had studied Cheddar Man for 40 years – but was struck by the Kennis brothers’ reconstruction

No-one’s entirely sure why pale skin evolved in these farmers, but their cereal-based diet was probably deficient in Vitamin D. This would have required agriculturalists to absorb this essential nutrient from sunlight through their skin.

“There may be other factors that are causing lower skin pigmentation over time in the last 10,000 years. But that’s the big explanation that most scientists turn to,” said Prof Thomas.

Boom and bust

The genomic results also suggest Cheddar Man could not drink milk as an adult. This ability only spread much later, after the onset of the Bronze Age.

Present-day Europeans owe on average 10% of their ancestry to Mesolithic hunters like Cheddar Man.

Britain has been something of a boom-and-bust story for humans over the last million-or-so years. Modern humans were here as early as 40,000 years ago, but a period of extreme cold known as the Last Glacial Maximum drove them out some 10,000 years later.

There’s evidence from Gough’s Cave that hunter-gatherers ventured back around 15,000 years ago, establishing a temporary presence when the climate briefly improved. However, they were soon sent packing by another cold snap. Cut marks on the bones suggest these people cannibalised their dead – perhaps as part of ritual practices.

Image copyright CHANNEL 4Ian Barnes
Image caption The actual skull of Cheddar Man is kept in the Natural History Museum, seen being handled here by Ian Barnes

Britain was once again settled 11,000 years ago; and has been inhabited ever since. Cheddar Man was part of this wave of migrants, who walked across a landmass called Doggerland that, in those days, connected Britain to mainland Europe. This makes him the oldest known Briton with a direct connection to people living here today.

This is not the first attempt to analyse DNA from the Cheddar Man. In the late 1990s, Oxford University geneticist Brian Sykes sequenced mitochondrial DNA from one of Cheddar Man’s molars.

Mitochondrial DNA comes from the biological “batteries” within our cells and is passed down exclusively from a mother to her children.

Prof Sykes compared the ancient genetic information with DNA from 20 living residents of Cheddar village and found two matches – including history teacher Adrian Targett, who became closely connected with the discovery. The result is consistent with the approximately 10% of Europeans who share the same mitochondrial DNA type.

Follow Paul on Twitter.



About Mythology

Based mainly on The Origins of the World’s Mythologies (E.J. Michael Witzel, 9780199812851). Continue reading About Mythology

So what is a human?

Over the years I’ve heard vastly different explanations on how the human species came to exist. The most commonly believed in the West is we evolved from “ape-men”, a common ancestor of humans and apes. This is a slight change from what Darwin claimed, he said we came from ape-men who came from apes. Since it’s generally agreed that the first humans were in Africa, this is called the Out of Africa theory or monogenism.

This is a fairly big departure from the old evolutionists’ claims. Back in evolution’s early days, scientists were tripping over themselves to prove that humans originated either from Asia* or from each continent independently**.

* This claimed that there were humanoid beings/ hominids in Africa first, but they didn’t become proper humans until they populated Asia (including Europe for once!). 

** Thus African humans came from African apes (gorillas), Easian humans came from Easian apes (orangutans), European humans came from European apes (chimpanzees – even though chimpanzees are native to Africa too but whatever). This is known as polygenism. 

Other explanations I’ve heard include:

They seem wildly different, but two things make all these hypotheses pretty much the same:

  1. They all agree we were originally some other kind of organism long ago. Ape seems to be the general consensus,
  2. They’re all post-Darwinian beliefs born in the anglophone (English-speaking) parts of the world – aka. the West.

In fact, the inordinate focus on apes is itself a very recent phenomenon even for the West. Back in Victorian times, for example, they were seen as just another inferior animal. If apes were seen at all, that is. Back then apes were considered a kind of joke-human, as if God was taking the piss or something. This may reflect from an earlier belief, echoed in the Qur’an at least, that apes used to be humans but were punished for something or other.

Although scientists (now) agree we’re all the same species – Homo sapiens sapiens, they still hold on to the concept of different species of humans. Denisovans, Neanderthals, H. habilis, H. ergaster, etc. My personal suspicion is that just like the late 18th century evolutionists depicted Africans, Asians, Australians & Europeans as separate species, modern ones are doing the same so they can have a convenient Other for us to be superior to.

But what’s to stop them merely being other ‘races’ or ethnic groups, no more different than lions & tigers, golden & bald eagles, grizzly & polar bears? If true that would explain why H. sapiens could interbreed with Neanderthals (and it’s now believed the ancestors of all non-Africans did). In fact, Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons (the ancestors of “modern” humans) lived together in the Mediterranean for a good 50,000 years!

And I’m not the only one with this suspicion. Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress, reckons so too. Why do we have to have been superior, or have any comparison, to other beings?

And what the hell would this ‘black’ Russian she-yeti be classed as?

Mythologies all over the world have their own explanations for our existence. The one we know best, thanks to the Bible, is the Abrahamic creation story. Shared by the Torah & Qur’an, it says we were specially created from mud/ clay and put in charge of all other animals by the omni-conscious ever-living God. The normal understanding is that all races are from “Adam & Eve” (monogenism), but there were scientists who introduced polygenism into Genesis! They argued that God created “other” (i.e. non-‘white’) races either before or at the same time as Adam & Eve! These are called Pre-Adamism & Co-Adamism respectively. It still exists here and there today.

Accounts from other world mythologies include:

  • We become human via socialisation and learning our people’s culture. No-one was born human, that’s “ridiculous” (according to the person I heard it from),
  • We came from a cosmic god’s body (but different races came from different parts – the Hindu account),
  • We are direct descendants of a god or gods (most mythological systems worldwide).

Probably the closest to the Darwinian account is that of the Aboriginal Australians. However, even that agrees with most others that external conscious beings/ forces specifically desired our existence. It’s exceedingly rare for a belief system to claim our existence was unplanned, so Darwinism may be unique in that regard.

My opinion is rather undecided. It’s obvious humans are animals and share similarities to all others, especially vertebrates.



However, we are pretty unique in many respects. As far as I know we’re the only species whose sexual desires aren’t restricted by climate or availability of partners. We’re one of very few permanently bipedal animals (others being birds and theropod dinosaurs). We’re the only species that created clothes, cities & farms, spaceships, the Internet & WMDs.

So what are humans?

Judging by our propensity for killing on massive scales, we could quite rightly be described as “future-eaters” (Tim Flannery). “Man is an exception, whatever else he is,” said G. K . Chesterton. “…If it is not true that a divine being fell, then we can only say that one of the animals went entirely off its head.”

I’m also inclined to sympathise with William Golding, author of The Inheritors and Pincher Martin, that “He (man) is a freak, an ejected foetus robbed of his natural development, thrown out into the world with a naked covering of parchment, with too little room for his teeth and a soft bulging skull like a bubble. But nature stirs a pudding there…”



(This is the 2nd part to Mythological Origins of European Racism)

In the spirit of satisfying my curiosity, I recently got the book The Destruction of Black Civilisation*. Though I’ve just begun reading, it’s already giving me another angle to approach this topic from: HISTORY.

* The Destruction of Black Civilisation: Great Issues of a Race from 4500 BC to 2000 AD, Chancellor Williams, ISBN 9780883780305. See featured image. Continue reading HISTORICAL ORIGINS OF EUROPEAN RACISM


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