Blue-eyed and dark: Meet the early Briton

Delia Watkins
February 9, 2018

Cutting-edge DNA analysis of the oldest complete skeleton found in Britain has revealed that the first modern humans living on the territory had "dark to black skin".

The model, which UCL and the Natural History Museum said rendered Cheddar Man's face with unprecedented accuracy, shows a man with dark skin, high cheekbones, blue eyes and coarse black hair.

Selina Brace, a researcher of ancient DNA at the museum, said the cave environment Cheddar Man was found in helped preserve his remains.

Scientists extracted the DNA by drilling a hole into his skull and drawing out bone powder, with subsequent findings suggesting that light-skinned Europeans evolved later than previously thought.

The densest bone in the human body is the petrous part of the temporal bones at the sides of the skull, and it was this that the team drilled into to extract a sample. Tom Booth, a bio-archaeologist at the museum said that Cheddar Man is special as he represents the population occupying Europe at present. The discovery of Cheddar Man's dark skin shows "that these imaginary racial categories that we have are really very modern constructions, or very recent constructions, that really are not applicable to the past at all", he told The Guardian.

The Cheddar Man is Britain's oldest complete skeleton, found in a cave near the village of Cheddar in southwest England in 1903.

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To achieve realistic facial reconstruction objectives, identical twin brothers (adding to the genetic irony) Alfons and Adrie Kennis first scanned the skull to make a working 3D model. The genetic material was remarkably well preserved, which the team attributes to the fact that Cheddar Man was in a cave for so long. Normally it is believed that British people have a fair complexion and are mostly white people. 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.

"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. The current, very light skin we have in Ireland now is at the endpoint of thousands of years of surviving in a climate where there's very little sun.

The Cheddar man had actually a dark to black skin and instead of having brown eyes, he actually had blue eyes.

Perhaps what's most remarkable about this Cheddar Man news is a hard truth.

Cheddar Man's DNA was also analysed back in the 1990's by Oxford University's Brian Sykes, who sequenced Mitochondrial DNA (DNA passed from mother to child) from Cheddar Man's teeth.

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