‘Cheddar Man’ DNA Suggests Dark Skin

Written by Science

Have you heard about the dark skinned immigrant who was found in a cave in Somerset? It caused quite a stir in the media, and sent many Daily Mail readers into a bit of a meltdown. He’s a mysterious fellow, known only as the ‘Cheddar Man’. Apparently he’d been hiding there for quite a while – around 10,000 years to be precise. You see, ol’ Cheddar is one of the first modern Britons, and the reason he’s causing a furore is because he’s helping us reconsider the genealogy of our ancestors.

The Cheddar Man is Britain’s oldest complete skeleton; he was actually discovered back in 1903,
from an area in Somerset called Cheddar Gorge (hence the name). He stood around 5ft 5in, led a
hunter-gatherer lifestyle and died in his early twenties; with fractures on the surface of his skull
suggesting a potentially violent demise. Up until recently, it was believed he had pale skin and fair hair, but a new groundbreaking scientific analysis has shown otherwise.

Researchers from London’s Natural History Museum extracted DNA from Cheddar Man’s skull and used it to map his genome. Their results produced the most comprehensive sequence for a genome from the Mesolithic period of European history – also known as the Stone Age. They then worked with the University College London to analyse the data and found that the early Briton had dark curly hair, blue eyes, and skin that was dark brown or black.

His ancestors would have walked across a landmass known as Doggerland, which once connected Britain to mainland Europe.

Specialists in paleontological model-making worked with researchers to create a forensic
reconstruction of Cheddar Man. The results are stirringly lifelike and will be shown in their full glory in the Channel 4 documentary First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man (which will have premiered before The Courier goes to print, but you can catch it on All 4).

It is believed that Cheddar Man was part of a migration that took place around 11,000 years ago,
following the Last Glacial Maximum (the last worldwide glacial period). His ancestors would have left Africa and moved to the Middle East, before eventually walking across a landmass known as
Doggerland, which once connected Britain to mainland Europe.

Whereas Britain had been intermittently populated before this, the vast sheets of ice that swathed the land during the ice ages forced these populations away. Since the arrival of Cheddar Man, however, Britain has been continuously populated ever since, and around 10% of today’s population shares their genetic ancestry with this migration.

A number of factors have caused skin pigmentation to be lowered over the past 10,000 years. This includes a move to agriculture and a cereal-based diet. This lifestyle would have created a Vitamin D deficiency in the population and meant that people developed lighter skin as a means to absorb more sunlight, which is used by the body to produce Vitamin D. A further migration of people also arrived from the Middle East around 6,000 years ago: these had pale skin and brown eyes and could have integrated with the existing population.

This isn’t the first time attempts have been made to analyse the DNA of Cheddar Man. Twenty years ago tests were carried out to see if there was a DNA link between the modern day residents of Cheddar Gorge and the Mesolithic man. One such link was found in Adrian Targett (who funnily enough is the history teacher at the village school). Targett has blue eyes and quite dark skin, and – in his opinion – also shares the same nose and hairline as Cheddar Man. But more astonishingly, he lives less than a mile away from the cave where his long lost Neolithic grandfather came to rest more than 10,000 years ago.

Last modified: 18th February 2018

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