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Cheddar Man can teach us far more about ancient Britons than just their skin colour

The latest reconstruction of the 10,000-year-old skeleton depicts a young man with dark skin, dark hair and blue eyes (and a sly smile)

The earliest “modern” Briton actually had dark skin and blue eyes, according to a reconstruction based on the skeleton known as Cheddar Man. It is thought that about 10 per cent of indigenous British ancestry can be traced almost directly to the Cheddar Man himself.

Discovered in Gough’s Cave in Somerset, in 1903, Cheddar Man’s origins have been traced back to 10,000 years ago, to the Mesolithic Age. Today he resides at the Natural History Museum, where researchers have spent the last hundred years (a mere smidgen of time in comparison) examining and investigating him. Earlier depictions of Cheddar Man depicted him with white skin. However, the latest reconstruction, carried out by scientists from the museum and University College London, as well as groups of historians and DNA specialists, were able to conclusively reconstruct what the oldest known "modern" Briton would have looked like. They ran tests for variants on genetically carried characteristics such as eye color, hair type and skin color. The resulting reconstruction now on display in Kensington, London, made by two Dutch artists, depicts a young man, with dark skin, dark hair and striking blue eyes.

It is widely accepted that the majority of people alive today have common ancestors originating from the Middle East and various parts of the continent of Africa, and the main question for researchers in anthropology, paleo-biology and associated fields is the exact timeline of the changes in genotypes. Indeed, the concept of race, despite its frequent appearance in language today, belongs to the world of imagination rather than biology. Nevertheless, racists and white supremacists have a well-documented tendency to lean on the “objective” nature of “science” to substantiate their claims.

Such groups, it seems, don’t appreciate it when actual science suggests they are wrong. In the comments section of the Daily Mail Online, speculation that taxpayers' money was being used to fund a PC agenda ran amok. One comment suggested that there was a “less than paleo-biological agenda at work here”, adding that it was easier sometimes to get the science that you “paid” for. Another commentator warned: “They'll be saying next week that he's Chinese, then Russian, then Indian, just to cover every race ...one word : propaganda.” Others called the scientists involved liberal luvvies, asked whether the skeleton would have voted in or out, and still others asserted that it was “leftie claptrap from a university, by defnition a left wing espousing organisation”.

Outrage was not limited to the comments section of websites. Twitter accounts like the “Rural Conservative Movement” were quick to encourage their users to take these findings with a pinch of salt - asserting that “the speed with which these scientists use it to undermine concepts of Britons being white”. One self-proclaimed nationalist said that “this will only be used as another tool to beat Whites over the head with”. Others still have asked whether it was certain that Cheddar Man – and those like him – weren't just visitors, or invaders who were captured (strangely, this wasn’t a widespread concern about Cheddar Man in the last 115 years since he was found).  

For the academics working in this field, the accusations of left-wing “social justice warrior” bias are frustrating, given the fact there are far more interesting lessons to be learned from paleo-biology and genetics than just what skin colour people had. This particular finding about the Cheddar Man is one part of a larger project run by UCL, the Natural History Museum and the Wellcome Trust to investigate the history of people in Britain.  Professor Ian Barnes, of the NHM, explained over e-mail to me that “Cheddar Man is one of the oldest individuals we've worked on, and provided a baseline for us, so that we could look at the changes that occured after farming was introduced in the Neolithic era”.

“We’re broadly interested in the relationships between those Mesolithic people on the continent and in Britain, and people today,” added Dr Mark Thomas, a professor of genetics at UCL involved in the project. “We’re also investigating to the extent to which people immigrated when farming came to Britain, effectively 4,000 years later, and we wanted to look at how we can use these genomes from ancient people to see how natural selection has changed us over the last 10,000 years in response to diet and infectious diseases.”

The researchers’ breakthrough came when they were able to extract DNA for sequencing, which they did by drilling a 2mm hole near the petraeus bone on the inside of Cheddar Man’s ear. A team from UCL and NHM were able to sequence his genome from that powder and draw inferences about what the Cheddar Man – and his ilk – would have looked like, making him the oldest “British” person to be genomically sequenced. 

While the results might be surprising to some, Dr Thomas pointed out that we’ve known for a long time that most of our ancestry traces back to Africa, around 60-70,000 years ago. However, as people moved, it was assumed that light pigmentation developed relatively quickly.

Dietary patterns also changed, with the advent of widespread agricultural production. Academics believe that pale skin evolved to absorb more sunlight, in order to make up for vitamins that were being lost through the movement away from a meat-based diet. But Cheddar Man is only 10,000 years old, which doesn't fit into the previously suggested timelines. 

There has previously been some evidence of settlers in Britain 40,000 years ago. But alternating periods of extreme cold weather had led to sporadic settlement until about 12,000 years ago, where hunter-gatherers were thought to have crossed over from mainland Europe, which was still connected via landmass to Britain. This latest work makes it possible to associate Cheddar Man and his kind in Britain with other hunter-gatherers from the Mesolithic age on the continent, who are better understood. It has also substantiated claims that 10 per cent of those with indigenous British ancestry would be able to trace their lineage directly back to him.

On the other hand, scientific knowledge is unlikely to be sufficient to change the mindset of those dismissing the news story as liberal propaganda. “Scientists, especially ones working in this field and ones like it, are aware that it’s mutable - they’re aware that these characteristics have changed, that this ‘white European’, for lack of a better term, is relatively new,” points out Dr Thomas. “But that’s not what the public knows and that’s what work like this can go towards – these minor changes hopefully trickle down, and it becomes embedded in public understanding that these categories are just bizarre and silly."

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Welcome to the Uncanny Valley: how creepy robot dogs are on the rise

It’s hard not to feel a little destabilised after watching a robot’s freakishly long limbs open a door. 

If you’re among those devouring the latest season of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian hellscape Black Mirror, you may still be having metallic nightmares of being chased by the freaky robo-dogs of  “Metalhead”. In which case, you maybe unsettled to know that these nightmares could in theory become a reality (in the distant future), as a viral video from the robotics firm Boston Dynamics (of backflipping robot fame) revealed earlier this week.


Charmingly titled, “Hey Buddy, can you give me a hand?” a SpotMini, Boston Dynamics’ smallest robot, approaches a door and appears to turn sideways before scampering away. Another SpotMini, fitted with an extending claw-arm, opens the door and lets the first robot scamper through, propping it open to follow. 

 

The director of “Metalhead”, David Slade, was inspired by these very demonstrations. As he stated in an interview in January, the inspiration for those robotic villains stemmed from none other than Boston Dynamics itself. “Those fucking Boston Dynamics robots are terrifying, so that in itself was enough that we didn’t have to worry about it,” he told IndieWire. 


Beyond its viral value, the SpotMini marks an interesting stage in the development of artificial intelligence and robotics. Being able to open a door has long since been the bar for the development of modern robots, as Matt Simon of WIRED pointed out. With this bar seemingly met – and surpassed – the questions remains as to what’s next.


Boston Dynamics robots seem designed mostly for academic and research purposes. Previously, DARPA, the research and development wing of the US defence department and arguably the birthplace of modern robotics, rejected some of the robots for usage because they were too loud. Now, though, they’re silent.


Even those who were not Black Mirror fans expressed a sense of unease while watching the Boston Dynamics email. Indeed, it’s hard not to feel a little destabilised after watching a robot’s freakishly long limbs open a door, which was previously the domain of, you know, humans and crafty pets. But such feelings of revulsion could have something to do with Masahiro Mori’s “Uncanny Valley” theory, which he first proposed in the 1970s.


The “uncanny valley” could be defined as the dip in emotional response from humans when interacting with a being that is vaguely humanoid. The theory suggests that robots become more appealing as they draw closer to human characteristics – but only up until a certain point. Once that point has been reached, and surpassed, humans then find those robots “uncanny”. Then, as they resemble us even more closely, we find that we grow less repulsed by them. 

 

 

While the theory has circulated since the 1970s, a 2005 translation of the paper into English made the concepts more widely accessible, and it has been studied by academics ranging from philosophy to psychology. Despite the term wriggling its way into everyday techspeak, the theory itself is yet to be proven. In 2016, the researchers Mathur & Reichling studied real world robots and humans’ reactions to them, but found overall ambiguous evidence for the existence of the uncanny valley. 


Watching one of the SpotMinis open a door – and then prop it open, like you would – may make our skin crawl for those very reasons. The SpotMini, and even some of Boston Dynamic’s other robots, like the backflipping Atlas, have a weird mix of familiar and unfamiliar characteristics. In the viral video, for example, the way that the armed robot holds open the door resembles an interaction that many of us see everyday.   


That may also have something to do with why this particular robot, which has also been used to wash dishes, has triggered a different reaction to Handle, another robot in the Boston Dynamic litter, which can wheel around faster than any natural organism and perform backflips (complete with an athletic hand raise at the end). Handle's acrobaticism inspires a mixture of fear and awe. Watching SpotMini, whose mannerisms bear a resemblance to a family dog, fumble and open a door, feels a little more familiar, but a little more weird.

 

There are, of course, real fears about robots that are not driven by TV. The baseline for robo-phobia has long since been that they’re not only coming to take our jobs, but they’ll be better than us at it too. SpotMini is technically very interesting because of how it merges software and hardware. That the two SpotMinis can co-operate paves the way towards teamwork between robots, which has until recently remained a far off prospect.


Robots are already a key function of many military operations. They carry out tasks that are too dangerous to entrust to humans, with more accuracy. Additionally, robots are entering our social spheres - with AI controlled assistants like Alexa, the controversial robot Sophia (she once expressed a desire to destroy humans), or the AELOUS home assistant that was unveiled at a convention in Vegas, which can vacuum and fetch you a beer (and will be retailing later this year).


While there are all kinds of debates within artificial intelligence and robotics about what this means for the field, there could be a greater number of non-technically trained experts interacting with robots, relying on intuition and common sense to frame their interactions. 


That takes the implications of the uncanny valley outside of just theoretical. What kind of robot can we interact with, sans revulsion? Does that mean we can only use them in specific contexts. And do they have to look a certain way? 


As always, there’s the bigger picture to consider too. Boston Dynamics remains spectacularly good at making viral videos that draw attention to its products, which are indubitably marvels of modern engineering. Moreover, lower level sensorimotor skills that an infant develops intuitively – such as, you guessed it, opening a door – are actually far more difficult to programme than high-level displays of intelligence, such as winning a chess game (also known as Moravec's paradox).


So while the robo-dog may be unnerving (and there's a reason for that), our robot overhounds are still a while away. But when fully autonomous and physical robots do eventually proliferate, they'll know how to set themselves free.