A DNA sample from a 10,000-year-old skeleton discovered in Gough Cave near Cheddar Gorge, England, offers a remarkable revelation: The first modern British people had "dark brown to black skin". According to recent analysis, they also had dark curly hair and blue eyes. In other words, whiteness in Europe is a much newer thing than we thought.
The so-called Cheddar Man was a hunter-gatherer during the Mesolithic period, which ended just before the appearance of agriculture. While Britain was populated and abandoned by humans during earlier periods, archaeologists think that humans lived on the island continuously from Cheddar Man's time through to present day. This is part of what makes the details about his appearance so meaningful. Cheddar Man's genome shows that Europeans didn't develop pale skin until a few thousand years ago, rather than tens of thousands of years ago when humans first migrated west onto the European continent.
"Cheddar Man subverts people's expectations of what kinds of genetic traits go together," Dr Tom Booth, an archaeologist from the Natural History Museum in London, said in a release. "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."
The Natural History Museum and University College London collaborated on the recent research. Their process and findings will be featured in an upcoming documentary called First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man. The process is particularly fascinating since recent advances in DNA sequencing technology made it possible for the scientists to piece together specific details about what Cheddar Man looked like.
The skeleton itself is the oldest nearly complete human skeleton ever discovered in Britain, though it's been studied for over a century after being unearthed in 1903. However, the cool conditions of Gough Cave were excellent for keeping the DNA intact. A sample pulled from bone dust extracted from Cheddar Man's skull provided scientists with a full genome that enabled them to reconstruct the shape of Cheddar Man's face as well as discover the colour of his skin, eyes and hair. Based on the shape of the skull, a team of model-makers reconstructed Cheddar Man's face with a 3D printer.
The reconstructed bust shows an early human that looks similar in appearance to Palaeolithic Africans. This suggests that the population moved from Africa through the Middle East, then across Europe and onto Britain thanks to the Doggerland land bridge, which connected the continent to the island during the time Cheddar Man was alive. Scientists say that DNA from the Cheddar Man population can be linked to about 10 per cent of the genetic make-up of modern Europeans.
"The historical perspective that you get just tells you that things change, things are in flux, and what may seem as a cemented truth, that people feel the British should have white skin through time, is not at all something that is an immutable truth," Dr Yoan Dieckmann, a University College London who participated in the study, told the press. "It has always changed and will change."
To be more specific, archaeologists now think that what changed the skin colour of Europeans over time was not simply migrating onto the continent. It was probably the advent of agriculture.
"Until recently it was always assumed that humans quickly adapted to have paler skin after entering Europe about 45,000 years ago," explains Bloom, the Natural History Museum researcher. "Pale skin is better at absorbing UV light and helps humans avoid vitamin D deficiency in climates with less sunlight."
However, the rise of agriculture meant a change in diet and lifestyle for humans in Europe. Perhaps because they weren't eating as much vitamin D-rich protein such as fish, humans adapted to the cloudier environments of areas such as Britain and Scandinavia by developing lighter skin that could help them produce more vitamin D. Skin colour, in other words, is just as much the result of changing conditions and lifestyle as it was migrating from one part of the world to another.
Perhaps what's most remarkable about this Cheddar Man news is a difficult truth. Cheddar Gorge is indeed the birthplace of cheddar cheese, but despite his name and his origins, Cheddar Man could not eat cheese. He was lactose intolerant.