The genome of Cheddar Man, who lived 10,000 years ago, suggests that he had blue eyes, dark skin and dark curly hair
The first modern Britons, who lived about 10,000 years ago, had “dark to black” skin, a groundbreaking DNA analysis of Britain’s oldest complete skeleton has revealed.
The fossil, known as Cheddar Man, was unearthed more than a century ago in Gough’s Cave in Somerset. Intense speculation has built up around Cheddar Man’s origins and appearance because he lived shortly after the first settlers crossed from continental Europe to Britain at the end of the last ice age. People of white British ancestry alive today are descendants of this population.
It was initially assumed that Cheddar Man had pale skin and fair hair, but his DNA paints a different picture, strongly suggesting he had blue eyes, a very dark brown to black complexion and dark curly hair.
The discovery shows that the genes for lighter skin became widespread in European populations far later than originally thought – and that skin colour was not always a proxy for geographic origin in the way it is often seen to be today.
Tom Booth, an archaeologist at the Natural History Museum who worked on the project, said: “It really shows up that these imaginary racial categories that we have are really very modern constructions, or very recent constructions, that really are not applicable to the past at all.”
Yoan Diekmann, a computational biologist at University College London and another member of the project’s team, agreed, saying the connection often drawn between Britishness and whiteness was “not an immutable truth. It has always changed and will change”.
The findings were revealed ahead of a Channel 4 documentary, which tracked the ancient DNA project at the Natural History Museum in London as well as creating a new forensic reconstruction of Cheddar Man’s head.
To perform the DNA analysis, museum scientists drilled a 2mm-diameter hole into the ancient skull to obtain a few milligrams of bone powder. From this, they were able to extract a full genome, which held clues about this ancient relative’s appearance and lifestyle.
The results pointed to a Middle Eastern origin for Cheddar Man, suggesting that his ancestors would have left Africa, moved into the Middle East and later headed west into Europe, before eventually crossing the ancient land bridge called Doggerland which connected Britain to continental Europe. Today, about 10% of white British ancestry can be linked to this ancient population.