The model of Cheddar Man rendered by Kennis & Kennis Reconstructions (Image: ©Tom Barnes/Channel 4)
Recently, world media has been abuzz with the news that our earliest ancestors were dark skinned and had blue eyes.
A 10,000-year-old hunter had “dark to black” skin, a groundbreaking DNA analysis of Britain’s oldest complete skeleton has revealed. The Cheddar Man fossil was unearthed in Gough’s Cave in Somerset over a century ago. He was one of the first settlers to have crossed Doggerland, the land bridge from continental Europe to Britain, after the glaciers began receding at the end of the last ice age.
A Team of scientists using the latest genetic sequencing technology located the genes linked to skin and hair colour and texture, and eye colour and discovered he had a “dark to black” skin tone and blue eyes.
Reassembled skeleton of Cheddar Man, the oldest complete skeleton found in the UK. (Image: Natural History Museum )
Cheddar Man is the oldest almost complete skeleton of our species, Homo sapiens, ever found in Britain. Most of the Mesolithic human remains that date to this period were discovered in caves and there is a strong tradition of cave burial in the region.
'About a mile up the road from where Cheddar Man was found, there is another cave known as Aveline's Hole which is one of the biggest Mesolithic cemeteries in Britain. Archaeologists found the remains of about 50 individuals, all deposited over a short period of 100-200 years,' says Dr Tom Booth, a postdoctoral researcher working closely with the Natural History Museum's human remains collection to investigate human adaptation to changing environments.
Scientists believe that northern European peoples became lighter-skinned over time because pale skin absorbs more sunlight. These findings suggest that pale skinned people emerged with the advent of farming, at a time when people were obtaining less vitamin D from oily fish. We now know the genes for lighter skinned European populations spread far later than originally thought. These findings show that people of white British ancestry alive today, are direct descendants of this black population.
'Until recently it was always assumed that humans quickly adapted to have paler skin after entering Europe about 45,000 years ago,' says Dr Booth. 'Pale skin is better at absorbing UV light and helps humans avoid vitamin D deficiency in climates with less sunlight.'
The Skull of Cheddar Man.
(Image: Natural History Museum )
Scientists now believe that pale skin probably arrived in Britain with a migration of people from the Middle East around 6,000 years ago. These people had pale skin and brown eyes and absorbed populations like the ones Cheddar Man belonged to. No-one's entirely sure why pale skin evolved in these farmers, but their cereal-based diet was probably deficient in Vitamin D. This would have required agriculturalists to absorb this essential nutrient from sunlight through their skin.
Modern humans were in Britain as early as 40,000 years ago, but a period of extreme cold known as the Last Glacial Maximum drove them out some 10,000 years later. There's evidence from Gough's Cave that hunter-gatherers ventured back about 15,000 years ago, establishing a temporary presence when the climate briefly improved. However, they were soon forced to leave again by another cold period. Britain was once again settled 11,000 years ago and has been inhabited ever since.
Researchers extracted DNA from Cheddar Man, who was discovered in 1903. The DNA results suggest Cheddar Man could not drink milk as an adult. This capability only spread much later, after the beginning of the Bronze Age. Present-day Europeans owe on average 10% of their ancestry to Mesolithic hunters like Cheddar Man. Analysis of his genome reveals he was closely related to other Mesolithic individuals or Western Hunter-Gatherers who have been examined from Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary.
In 1997, it was reported that a living descendant of Cheddar Man had been found. The DNA of Adrian Targett, who was 42 years old when that discovery was made, was found to match that belonging to Cheddar Man. Both Targett and Cheddar Man share a common maternal ancestor.
Within Gough’s Cave, scientists have found numerous human and animal remains with clearly visible signs of butchery. The human remains belonged to around 5 or 7 people, including a three-year-old child and two adolescents. All of them had cut-marks and breakage consistent with defleshing and eating.
According to scientists, the remains do not display any evidence of violence prior to death, so the people who were consumed were not killed and eaten because of conflict. Scientists concluded that this was an example either of cannibalism or the removal of flesh from bones after death, which was occasionally done for ritualistic purposes.
These people died during the Ice Age, when food resources were very limited, which may explain the necessity to consume human remains. The researchers suggest that people from the Gough's Cave used cups made from skulls as part of ritual practices.
Scientists from the Natural History Museum in London and University College London (UCL) compared hundreds of cut-marks found on both human and animal bones at Gough’s Cave. After examining the engravings on a human bone, they concluded that cannibals ate their relatives and then performed ritualistic burials with the remains.
One of the first settlers to arrive in Britain from continental Europe 10,000 years ago had dark skin and blue eyes. Cheddar Man is the oldest almost complete skeleton of our species, Homo sapiens, ever found in Britain. These findings show that people of white British ancestry alive today, are direct descendants of this black population. Present-day Europeans owe on average 10% of their ancestry to Mesolithic hunters like Cheddar Man.
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