By Madeleine Muzdakis on October 21, 2022
“He reminds us that you can’t make assumptions about what people looked like in the past based on what people look like in the present.”
In 1903, researchers excavating a cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, in the UK, stumbled upon a surprising discovery. A Homo sapien skeleton who lived around 10,000 years ago and is one of the oldest modern humans in Britain. Known today as “Cheddar Man,” the ancient gentleman has recently made the news again. Scientists utilizing modern DNA techniques believe the Mesolithic human had light blue eyes and a dark complexion. As remarkable as resurrecting the face of this ancient Briton is the fact that Cheddar Man’s modern-day descendant lives less than a mile from the caves where his remains lay for millennia.
This ancient Brit was discovered by chance during a drainage renovation in the tourist attraction of Gough’s Cave during the early 20th century. The skeleton quickly became known as the oldest modern human discovered in the British Isles. A Mesolithic hunter-gatherer who died in his twenties, the ancient man stood only about 5 foot 5 inches. Cave burials were typical at the time, when England was still a forested land connected to Europe. Strangely, Cheddar Man was found buried alone.
In 2018, London’s Natural History Museum extracted DNA from Cheddar Man’s inner ear bone. Experts at the University College of London and Kennis & Kennis Reconstructions have since used this DNA to reconstruct his visage. Previous efforts to do so depicted him as light skinned. However, research in recent years connected certain DNA traits relating to skin color to those of sub-Saharan African ancient humans. Like other Mesolithic humans in Europe at the time, Cheddar Man likely had a dark skin tone.
“He is just one person, but also indicative of the population of Europe at the time,” says Dr. Tom Booth, a researcher associated with the museum. “They had dark skin and most of them had pale colored eyes, either blue or green, and dark brown hair. Cheddar Man subverts people’s expectations of what kinds of genetic traits go together…It seems that pale eyes entered Europe long before pale skin or blond hair, which didn’t come along until after the arrival of farming…He reminds us that you can’t make assumptions about what people looked like in the past based on what people look like in the present, and that the pairings of features we are used to seeing today aren’t something that’s fixed.”
Cheddar Man was an early human pioneer of the settlement of the land that became Britain. Despite the over 10,000 years which have passed since his death, descendants still populate the island. About 10% of the modern British race can trace their ancestors to the genetic European population of which Cheddar Man was a member. This population was largely replaced by a latter wave of migrant farmers. However, DNA testing in 1997 revealed that matrilineal relations of the ancient human still lived in the region. Adrian Targett, a high school teacher, was a DNA match. Born close by Cheddar Man’s final resting place, he still holds the record for “farthest traced descendant by DNA.” With each revelation about Cheddar Man, the narrative of British history becomes richer. […]