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7 February 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 8:33am

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)

By Sanjana Varghese

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).  

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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.”