Analysis Of Cheddar Man’s DNA Reveals First Britons Were Black

Scientists at the Natural History Museum have analysed DNA from Cheddar Man, who lived 10,000 years ago, and found that he had blue eyes, dark skin and dark curly hair.

In 1903, the almost complete skeleton of a young man who died 10,000 years ago was unearthed in Gough Cave, at Somerset’s Cheddar Gorge. He lived shortly after the first settlers crossed from continental Europe to Britain at the end of the last Ice Age via a now-submerged landmass known as Doggerland.

Although previous populations had made it to Britain, they didn’t survive long enough to establish a permanent population. Cheddar Man’s arrival marked the start of continuous habitation on the island, making him one of the very first modern Britons.

Scientists from the Natural History Museum extracted DNA from bone powder by drilling a 2mm hole through the petrous bone in his skull – a particularly dense part of ear bone where DNA is most likely to survive in ancient remains.

This is the first time genetic tests have been done on the skeleton, and the analysis was carried out by scientists from the museum and from University College London using cutting edge gene sequencing techniques that would have been impossible ten years ago.

They found that genetically, he belonged to a group of people known as the ‘Western Hunter-Gatherers’ who lived throughout western Europe, including Spain, Hungary and Luxembourg, during the Mesolithic era. DNA from multiple skeletons found at these sites had previously been analysed to reveal that these Europeans had dark skin and blue eyes.

Today, about 10% of white British ancestry can be linked to this population.

The team cross-referenced his results with genomes of present day inhabitants of Cheddar, as well as with other Mesolithic skeletons from across Europe. They then honed in on genes relating to Cheddar Man’s appearance.

The results showed that this young man, born 300 generations before us and related to hundreds of thousands of people living in Britain today, had blue eyes, dark skin and curly hair.

Archaeologists already knew Cheddar Man was about five foot five inches tall, around 10 stone with good teeth and that he died in his early 20s. But recent advances in genetic sequencing techniques have now allowed them to determine the colour of his eyes, skin and hair.

The information was passed to Dutch ‘Paleo-artists’ Alfons and Adrie Kennis, who make facial reconstructions of extinct mammals and early humans.

A previous reconstruction of Cheddar Man, made by the University of Manchester before DNA tests were available, depicted him with white skin. With the new results, the Kennis brothers were able to produce a more accurate likeness.

Professor Ian Barnes, a geneticist, who worked on the investigation said ‘I assume [this is] going to be a big surprise to most members of the public.’

Dr Rick Schulting, an archaeology professor at Oxford University said: ‘It may be that we may have to rethink some of our notions of what it is to be British, what we expect a Briton to look like at this time.’

The findings add to evidence that pale skin emerged much later in Europe than most people realise; it wasn’t until the advent of farming, less than 8,000 years ago, when people were obtaining less vitamin D though dietary sources like oily fish. And those changes themselves were brought by mass migrations from the near East.

There are multiple genetic variants linked to loss of pigmentation, including some that are very widespread in European populations today. Cheddar Man had ‘ancestral’ versions of all these genes, which is what strongly suggests he, like other Mesolithic Europeans, had dark skin.

Dr Yoan Dieckmann, from University College London, who also took part in the project, said: “The historical perspective that you get just tells you that things change, things are in flux, and what may seem as a cemented truth that people who feel British should have white skin through time is not at all something that is an immutable truth”.

The results will be revealed when The First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man airs on Channel 4 on Sunday February 18.

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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