by Jennifer Hassan
They call him Cheddar Man.
He lived more than 10,000 years ago, had brown hair, blue eyes and ‘dark to black’ skin. To the surprise of many, he is believed to have been the first modern Briton.
A new project from London’s Natural History Museum and University College London has revealed groundbreaking DNA results that give a much clearer image of early British inhabitants. Cheddar Man’s skeleton was discovered in 1903 in Gough’s Cave, located in Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, England. It is thought that the cool temperature in the cave helped to preserve the skeleton’s valuable DNA.
“If the body was deposited in a good environment, where there was a cool and constant temperature, then the petrous bone is a good place to find useful ancient DNA,” said Selina Brace, who specializes in the study of ancient DNA. Scientists obtained DNA from Cheddar Man by drilling a 2-millimeter hole in his skull and extracting bone powder.
Initially, it was assumed that the man, who died in his 20s, had pale skin, but new analysis and facial reconstruction have revealed quite the opposite. It is now believed that Cheddar Man’s ancestors arrived in Britain via the Middle East after leaving Africa.
“He is just one person, but also indicative of the population of Europe at the time,” said Tom Booth, a researcher at the museum. “They had dark skin, and most of them had pale-colored eyes, either blue or green, and dark brown hair.”
Hence Cheddar Man, Booth said, “subverts people’s expectations of what kinds of genetic traits go together.”
Experts say the ancestor was a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer who would have spent his days carving tools, fishing and hunting animals. It is believed Cheddar Man is related to one in 10 people living across the United Kingdom today. (Researchers also claim that, ironically, Cheddar Man was lactose intolerant.) It is not yet known how he died.
It didn’t take long for Cheddar Man to trend worldwide on Twitter. Reactions to the extraordinary findings were mixed. Some praised the work of those involved with the reconstruction of Britain’s oldest skeleton.
The model of Cheddar Man was created by Kennis & Kennis Reconstructions using 3-D printing. It is on display in the Human Evolution Gallery at London’s Natural History Museum. Cheddar Man’s complete skeleton has been loaned to the museum and is also on display.