The people who lived in Britain 300 generations ago were black, research suggests. DNA tests on the oldest complete skeleton discovered in this country indicate that he had “dark to black” skin and blue eyes.
Cheddar Man, who died in his 20s about 9,000 years ago, has been described as the first modern Briton as he marked the start of continuous habitation of the island. All previous human populations who attempted to settle in Britain had been wiped out, and modern-day Britons are descended from the same pool of people as he was.
The research by the Natural History Museum and University College London is the first attempt to pinpoint the skin tone of Britons from the Mesolithic era using DNA. It suggests that lighter skin pigmentations did not develop among northern Europeans until much later than thought. Past representations of Cheddar Man, whose skeleton was found in a Somerset cave in 1903, depicted him as white.
The research also challenges assumptions around British ethnic identity. Yoan Diekmann, of UCL, said: “What may seem a truth — that people who feel British should have white skin — through time it’s not at all something that is an immutable truth.”
The study builds on findings that suggest southern Europeans had darker skin pigments up to 7,000 years ago. Humans in areas with relatively low levels of sunlight developed lighter skins to absorb more Vitamin D, scientists believe.
Iain Mathieson, assistant professor of genetics at the University of Pennsylvania, who did not work on the project, said the findings were in line with studies suggesting the emergence of genes linked to lighter skin. Researchers also established that Cheddar Man was not related to earlier humans whose remains were in the same caves. They are thought to have practised cannibalism.
In addition to his “dark to black” skin pigment, researchers are now confident that Cheddar Man had striking blue eyes, gently curled black hair, wide cheekbones and a delicate chin. He stood 5ft 5 in tall and had an excellent set of teeth,
“It’s that combination of features that make him look not like anyone that you’d see today,” said Ian Barnes, an expert in ancient DNA at the Natural History Museum. “Not just dark skin and blue eyes, because you can get that combination, but also face shape.”
Cheddar Man’s people are thought to have come to Britain about 11,700 years ago, crossing Doggerland, which once connected the country to continental Europe.
Although humans are known to have lived in Britain far earlier — at least 900,000 years ago — all previous colonisations had died out, meaning the new arrivals were exploring virgin territory.
The tribes were hunter-gatherers who made harpoons to spear fish and used rudimentary bows and arrows to kill red deer and wild boar. They are thought to have fanned out across the south and Midlands. Academics estimate that the total population of Britain at this time of the Mesolithic period was just 12,000.
Cheddar Man’s skeleton was discovered more than a century ago in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset.
Well preserved by the cool limestone surroundings, the bones were transferred to the Natural History Museum for public display until recent breakthroughs in DNA sequencing made it possible to unlock their secrets.
In a joint project between the museum and University College London (UCL), filmed for a Channel 4 documentary, researchers drilled into his skull to obtain bone powder that could be tested for DNA.
The results were combined with high-tech skull scans to reconstruct Cheddar Man’s face using 3D printing. The model makers, Adrie and Alfons Kennis, from the Netherlands, stressed that their creation was an interpretation rather than a portrait, but was rooted in scientific data.
It was previously assumed that humans developed lighter skin tones as they migrated north from Africa towards Europe about 40,000 years ago. More recent research has suggested that dark skin pigments persisted among some southern European populations with genes linked to lighter skin spreading only about 7,000 to 8,000 years ago. An earlier facial reconstruction of Cheddar Man had depicted him with a white face, but until now scientists had no solid DNA evidence of the skin tone of these first Britons.
Modern Britons draw about 10 per cent of their genetic ancestry from the West European hunter gatherer population from which Cheddar Man hailed.
The researchers also established that Cheddar Man was genetically similar to other Mesolithic skeletons found in Spain, Hungary and Luxembourg. “It would be fair to say that he’s more a European than a Brit,” the team conclude.
Steven Clarke, director of the Channel 4 documentary, said that he hoped that the results of the genome sequencing would inform modern discussions about race and even Brexit.
“You go back quite far and discover that everything’s in flux, everything changes. That’s the message of the film,” he said.
“There is a national debate, and a debate about our relationship with Europe. All those things are still in the mix. It speaks to us now.”
The First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man will be broadcast on Channel 4 on Sunday, February 18.
LIGHTER SKIN SUITED COOLER CLIMATES
- Modern humans, or Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa. When they started leaving is disputed — research indicates that migration may have begun 120,000 years ago.
- They are believed to have reached Europe about 40,000 years ago. Lighter skin tones were thought to have developed from this time, as dark skins were less advantageous outside sunny latitudes.
- A study published in 2015 found that hunter-gatherers in Spain and Hungary 8,500 years ago did not have genes linked to pale skin. DNA evidence suggests that humans living further north, in Sweden, had developed white skin by this time.
- Research suggests that having whiter skin helps humans to absorb more Vitamin D, a benefit in northern climates with little sunshine compared to Africa.
This scientific revelation, in the ‘TIMES’ today, gives striking evidence of the possibility that the first humans in Britain were actually dark-skinned and blue-eyed, a startling discovery that renders human separation on the basis of race and colour a fallacy from earliest times.
Of course, those people who believe that the story of Creation began with the arrival of Adam and Eve a mere 6,000 years ago will do their best to discount this new discovery – if only to shore up their own understanding that the Old Testament gives an historical account of the act of Creation.
However, what this new discovery does reveal, is the fact that human beings are, historically, migratory creatures, whose skin tone has adapted to the climatic conditions that they have been subjected to in the course of their migrations. As people began to migrate from Africa – where it is thought all humanity originated – they encountered vastly different climatic conditions. This necessitated – for their survival – an adaptation to the sun’s light and heat, together with their capacity to absorb the amount of sunlight their bodies could cope with.
This new knowledge ought to help us to refrain from judging the colour of one’s skin as a primary indicator of a person’s social acceptability or culture – which, unfortunately, has often been the basis of prejudice from the point of view of white European settlers in other countries.
The old (biblical) idea of the ‘children of Ham’ – which has affected the understanding of countless white-skinned people, that black people are in some way less valuable to God than fair-skinned people – needs now to be understood in a more balanced way – remembering that all human beings are created in the Image and Likeness of God their Creator.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand