Feb. 7 (UPI) — New analysis of DNA sampled from Cheddar Man, Britain’s oldest complete human skeleton, suggests the early Briton had “dark to black” skin pigmentation and blue eyes.
Cheddar Man is the oldest Briton to have their genome sequenced. The work was performed by a team of geneticists and research scientists with the University College London and Natural History Museum Human Evolution.
The research effort will be detailed in a new documentary, First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man, to debut on Britain’s Channel 4.
Results of the genetic analysis are helping scientists gain a better understanding of the first humans to populate the British Isles at the end of the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago. The findings suggest lighter skin pigmentation, a common trait among modern Europeans, came later than previously thought.
But the research revealed more than new details about Cheddar Man’s skin tone.
“For me, it’s not just the skin color that’s interesting, it’s that combination of features that make him look not like anyone that you’d see today,” Ian Barnes, research leader at the Natural History Museum, told New Scientist. “Not just dark skin and blue eyes, because you can get that combination, but also the face shape. So all of this combines together and make him just not the same as people you see around today.”
In addition to sequencing Cheddar Man’s genome, researchers used advanced imaging to scan his skull and reconstructed a 3D model of his facial structure.
Cheddar Man was recovered from Gough’s Cave at Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, England, in 1903. For the last century, scientists have hypothesized about where he came from and what he looked like. Now, they have answers.
Though the early Briton and his relatives were eventually outnumbered and displaced by subsequent migrations to Britain, they remain responsible for roughly 10 percent of the genome of modern Britain’s indigenous population.
“Cheddar Man’s genetic profile places him with several other Mesolithic-era Europeans from Spain, Hungary and Luxembourg whose DNA has already been analyzed,” Mark Thomas, a UCL professor and geneticist, said in a news release. “These ‘Western Hunter-Gatherers’ migrated into Europe at the end of the last Ice Age and the group included Cheddar Man’s ancestors.”
More than inform scientists’ understanding of Britain’s genetic past, the discovery could force residents of Britain to reconsider what it means to be — and look like — a native Briton.
“I think we all know we live in times where we are unusually preoccupied with skin pigmentation,” Steven Clarke, director of the Channel Four documentary, told the BBC.
“It becomes a part of our understanding, I think that would be a much, much better thing,” Thomas said. “I think it would be good if people lodge it in their heads, and it becomes a little part of their knowledge.”