The first ever full DNA analysis of Britain’s oldest modern human specimen has provided unprecedented insight into the appearance of ancient Britons and a reminder that we all “come from somewhere in Africa”.
“Generally people would be very surprised to see what Cheddar Man – an individual from 10,000 years ago – looked like,” Dr Selina Brace, an ancient DNA researcher who contributed to the work at the Natural History Museum, told The Independent.
Examination of genetic material from Cheddar Man’s bones, first discovered in a Somerset cave in 1903, revealed the ancient Briton had “dark to black” skin, blue eyes and dark, curly hair.
“The analysis of the ancient bit of the DNA from the bones looks like it has features that we wouldn’t necessarily associate with Somerset,” Dr Simon Underdown, an anthropologist at Oxford Brookes University who was not involved with the study, told The Independent.
“It’s a cracking piece of research, and I think the most exciting thing is that it reminds us humans have got a long story, and we all come from somewhere in Africa.”
A recent discovery in Israel provided the earliest ever evidence for modern humans migrating out of Africa, where our species is thought to have originated.
The Cheddar Man specimen belongs to a group of people known as “Western Hunter-Gatherers” who migrated to Europe from the Middle East at the end of the last Ice Age around 12,000 years ago.
“He is just one person, but also indicative of the population of Europe at the time,” said Dr Tom Booth, a bioarchaeologist who contributed to the research. “Cheddar Man subverts people’s expectations of what kinds of genetic traits go together.”
Until recently it was assumed the early inhabitants of Europe quickly evolved pale skin around 45,000 years ago. Pale skin is better at absorbing UV light and therefore avoiding vitamin D deficiency.
But the research team found genetic markers that showed skin pigmentation usually associated with sub-Saharan Africa, suggesting a totally different look for humans in Britain 10,000 years ago.
“They had dark skin and most of them had pale coloured eyes, either blue or green, and dark brown hair,” said Dr Booth.
Dr Brace added: “It’s kind of surprising, because you would have thought [light skin] would have come more quickly as people are moving into these different climates. But in fact what we think is they had a very meat and fish-rich diet, so it was quite likely they were getting their vitamin D from there.”
Cheddar Man was a hunter-gatherer from the Mesolithic period, during which, Britain was attached to continental Europe, and the land would have been covered in dense forests.
DNA tends to degrade over long periods of time, but as the skeleton had been carefully preserved in the stable environment of a cave, the scientists were able to extract a sample to analyse.
To do so, they drilled into Cheddar Man’s inner ear bone – the densest bone in the body – known to be an excellent source for ancient DNA.
The scientists’ analysis provides unprecedented insight into the ancient human’s characteristics – that he was lactose intolerant, for example, and would have been unable to process alcohol. These findings are only possible because of massive breakthroughs in DNA sequencing.
Professor Chris Stringer, research leader in human origins at the Natural History Museum, has been studying material from the site of Cheddar Man’s discovery for decades.
“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,” he said.
“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 surprising) achievement.”
Dr Underdown praised the “cutting edge techniques employed by the team studying Cheddar Man, which have allowed them to put “together a really vivid image of what that person would have looked like”.
“The science is incredibly sound. They have extracted DNA , they have looked for markers in the DNA they have found that are associated with characteristic A, B, C, D, E and they have matched those – and the highest probability is that the person would have looked like that.”
He added that the study provided a reminder that humanity all ultimately came from the same source population, and that there have been many waves of migration to Britain that have taken place in the millennia since Cheddar Man was alive.
“It reminds us that we all come from a relatively small population to begin with – we’ve all spread out, colonised new places and done new things. It just challenges this idea we have that certain people belong to certain places – that Britons are Britons are Britons,” said Dr Underdown.
Recent discoveries such as the specimen from Israel have revealed how the first humans spread from their place of origin in Africa.
“We love our labels don’t we, we love putting ourselves in little pots – but you have still got what is essentially quite a small genetic pool to start with in Homo sapiens,” added Dr Undertown. “We can all trace ourselves back to a small founding population at the beginning.”
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