Early Britons had dark skin, DNA reveals

Wednesday, February 07, 2018


The Cheddar Man was previously thought to have been light-skinned and brown-eyed, but is now believed to have had dark colouring and blue eyes.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LONDON • The “Cheddar Man”, Britain’s oldest, nearly complete human skeleton, had dark skin, blue eyes and dark curly hair when he lived in what is now south-west England 10,000 years ago, scientists who read his DNA have discovered.

The finding suggests the lighter skin pigmentation now seen as typical of northern Europeans is far more recent than previously thought, according to researchers from University College London who took part in the project.

Cheddar Man’s skin colour was described as “dark to black” by the scientific team, which also included researchers from London’s Natural History Museum, where the skeleton is on display in the Human Evolution gallery.

In an earlier model, Cheddar Man had been portrayed as having brown eyes and light skin.

“It is very surprising that a Brit 10,000 years ago could have that combination of very blue eyes but really dark skin,” said the museum’s Professor Chris Stringer, who for the past decade has analysed the bones of people found in the cave.

“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,” said Prof Stringer.

Unearthed in 1903 in a cave in Cheddar Gorge, in the county of Somerset, the Mesolithic-era man was a hunter-gatherer whose ancestors migrated into Europe at the end of the last Ice Age.

Three hundred generations later, around 10 per cent of indigenous British ancestry can be linked to Cheddar Man’s people, scientists say. His DNA has also been linked to individuals discovered in modern-day Spain, Hungary and Luxembourg.

As part of a project commissioned by Britain’s Channel 4 television station for a documentary, experts from the Natural History Museum’s ancient-DNA lab drilled a tiny hole into the skull in order to extract genetic information.

The DNA was unusually well preserved, enabling the scientists to sequence Cheddar Man’s genome for the first time and to analyse it to establish aspects of his appearance.

Then, a pair of Dutch artists who are experts in palaeontological model-making, Mr Alfons Kennis and his brother, Mr Adrie Kennis, used a high-tech scanner to make a three-dimensional model of Cheddar Man’s head.

The model will be shown on the Channel 4 documentary, which is scheduled to be aired on Feb 18.

Mr Alfons Kennis said the DNA findings were “revolutionary”.

“It maybe gets rid of the idea that you have to look a certain way to be from somewhere. We are all immigrants,” he said.


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