‘Cheddar Man’ DNA shows early Britons had dark skin and blue eyes
DNA tests on Britain’s oldest complete skeleton, known as Cheddar Man, show he had “dark to black” skin, blue eyes and dark curly hair, a finding that drastically changes assumptions about early Britons.
The tests were done by a team from University College London and London’s Natural History Museum, where Cheddar Man, believed to be about 10,000 years old, has been kept since his discovery in the early 20th century. His name comes because was found in the area where cheddar cheese originated.
Until recently, scientists assumed humans quickly adapted to have paler skin after entering Europe about 45,000 years ago, said Tom Booth, one of the research team members. Pale skin is better at absorbing UV light and helps humans avoid vitamin D deficiency in climates with less sunlight.
An earlier reconstruction of the skeleton, carried out in the 90s and not based on DNA research, concluded he had lighter skin.
“It really shows us that these imaginary racial categories that we have are really very modern constructions or very recent constructions,” Booth told the Guardian newspaper.
The findings were revealed Monday ahead of a documentary, The First Brit: Secrets Of The 10,000-year-old Man, which tracked the DNA project and sponsored a reconstruction of Cheddar Man’s head.
To perform the DNA analysis, scientists obtained a small amount of bone powder by drilling into Cheddar Man’s skull. From that, they were able to extract a full genome, which held clues about his appearance and lifestyle.
The researchers, Ian Barnes and Selina Brace, also scanned the skull, the Independent reported, and a 3D model was produced by “paleo artists” Alfons and Adrie Kennis, who make life-like reconstructions of extinct mammals and early humans.
“For me, it’s not just the skin color that’s interesting,” Barnes told the Independent, “but it’s that combination of features that make him look not like anyone that you’d see today.”
Pale skin and brown eyes likely first arrived in Britain with a migration of people from the Middle East around 6,000 years ago who mixed with the existing population that was also evolving to adapt to local conditions, the BBC reported. Researchers believe the British Isles have only been continuously settled by humans since about a thousand years before Cheddar Man lived.
That migration was followed by others, including Vikings, Gauls, Romans, and Normans, many of whom had fair skin and hair, leaving about 10% of current white Britons with DNA matches to Cheddar Man and his contemporaries. In the 90s, scientists compared Cheddar Man’s DNA with 20 living residents of Cheddar village and found just two matches, the BBC reported.