DNA shows early Briton “Cheddar Man” had dark skin
LONDON — He had dark skin, brown curly hair and blue eyes, DNA tests suggest, upending a common assumption that Britain’s indigenous populations were all pale skinned with fair features.
He is “Cheddar Man,” Britain’s oldest complete skeleton, which was discovered in 1903 in Gough’s Cave near the village of Cheddar in Somerset, in southwest England. He lived about 10,000 years ago in the Mesolithic period, the middle part of the Stone Age.
Scientists have now reconstructed his features, demonstrating that he was part of a population of ancient Western Europeans that, scientists have shown in recent years, had dark skin. Research has shown that fair skin pigmentation — long considered a defining feature of Europe — only goes back less than 6,000 years.
The research was led by the Natural History Museum and University College London. A news release about the research was released Wednesday, but the study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
“I first studied Cheddar Man more than 40 years ago, but could never have believed that we would one day have his whole genome — the oldest British one to date,” said Prof. Chris Stringer, research leader in human origins at the Natural History Museum.
“To go beyond what the bones tell us and get a scientifically based picture of what he actually looked like is a remarkable and from the results quite a surprising achievement,” said Professor Stringer, who first excavated fossils at Gough’s Cave 30 years ago.
The new research shows that Cheddar Man belonged to a population known as Western hunter-gatherers, who first migrated to Europe about 14,000 years ago, he said. Today, about 10 percent of British ancestry can be linked to that population.
For decades Britons have debated over where they came from and what defines the nature of their genetic heritage.
As scientists are retrieving more DNA from ancient Britons, they are discovering how the isles received wave after wave of immigrants over tens of thousands of years.
This growing knowledge of ancient British genetics is allowing researchers to reconstruct the biology of early Britons — including their skin color.
“What may seem a truth — that people who feel British should have white skin — through time it’s not all something that is an immutable truth,” said Yoan Diekmann, a biologist at University College London who took part in the research.
Researchers studying the skin of living people have been able to determine how some variants influence pigmentation. When humans arose in Africa 300,000 years ago, recent research shows, they had a mixture of light and dark variants.
Humans first arrived in Europe from Africa about 45,000 years ago. Western hunter-gatherers migrated from the Near East much later, mostly replacing the Europeans already there.
Researchers studying a Spanish 7,000-year-old fossil first discovered that at least some Western hunter-gatherers were most likely dark-skinned and blue eyed. Later research confirmed this finding.
Until now, no one knew the affinity of Cheddar Man. The new research shows that he was part of the Western hunter-gatherer population.
“Before, we didn’t know what population lived in Britain, because we didn’t have a genome from there,” Dr. Diekmann said.
Studying a more recent skeleton, the researchers found evidence for the arrival of farmers in England, who descended from people in the Near East. These people carried some variants for lighter skin.