Who is Cheddar Man? 10,000-year-old remains reveal first modern Britons had dark skin, blue eyes

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Researchers say the lighter complexion associated with northern European population was more of a recent genetic change.

A detailed genetic study of the 10,000-year-old remains of a man has revealed that first modern Britons had dark to black skin and blue eyes unlike modern-day Brits who mostly have pale skin tones.

Britain’s oldest complete skull aka the Cheddar Man was excavated more than a century ago in Gough’s Cave in Somerset. An initial study of the fossil suggested the man had a lighter skin and brown eyes, but now a group of researchers have painted a totally different picture, thanks to DNA analysis and high-tech 3D reconstruction.

After drilling out and analysing bone powder from Cheddar Man’s skull, the joint group of Britain’s Natural History Museum and University College London researchers managed to recreate his face with lifelike details.

To everyone’s surprise, the facial reconstruction revealed that the man had dark to black skin, blue eyes, and curly hair, resembling the modern-day sub-Saharan African population.

“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 Chris Stringer, according to Phys.org.

Dr Tom Booth, a postdoctoral researcher who worked closely with the Museum’s human remains collection to study human adaptation to changing environments, pointed out that lighter complexion associated with northern European population was more of a recent genetic change, and skin colour had no connection to the geographical location at that time.

“Until recently it was always assumed that humans quickly adapted to have paler skin after entering Europe about 45,000 years ago,” Tom was quoted as saying in a report by the Britain’s Natural History Museum. He added that the Cheddar Man has the genetic markers of skin pigmentation that is usually associated with sub-Saharan Africa.

“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,” he added.

Meanwhile, the reconstruction also gives new insights into the ancestral history of the Cheddar Man who likely died during his twenties and had close-links to Mesolithic-era individuals from Spain, Hungary and Luxembourg whose DNA has already been analysed.

“These ‘Western Hunter-Gatherer’s’ migrated into Europe at the end of the last ice age and the group included Cheddar Man’s ancestors,” said Professor Mark Thomas, who analysed Cheddar Man’s DNA to recreate his case.

As the Guardian reports, settlers used to clear out periodically during ice ages and when the last cold period ended, Cheddar Man’s ancestors might have reached Europe, starting continuous inhabitation of the region. The subject had middle-Eastern origins which further led the researchers to posit that the people may have moved in from the middle-east.

The process of analysis and 3D remodelling was undertaken for Channel 4 documentary “First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man” set to be aired on 18 February.

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