Now if we can just get a few more women and dark-skinned people on the research team

It isn’t at all surprising that ancient Britons were dark skinned — we know the genes behind pigmentation, we have sequenced genomes from skeletons that are thousands of years old, and we know that light skins were the result of a mutation that swept through Europe about 6,000 years ago. So when a reconstruction of Cheddar Man, a 10,000 year old skeleton found in England, is made from the skull plus genomic information, we should expect that he’d be found to have been dark-skinned.

The first modern Britons, who lived about 10,000 years ago, had “dark to black” skin, a groundbreaking DNA analysis of Britain’s oldest complete skeleton has revealed.

The fossil, known as Cheddar Man, was unearthed more than a century ago in Gough’s Cave in Somerset. Intense speculation has built up around Cheddar Man’s origins and appearance because he lived shortly after the first settlers crossed from continental Europe to Britain at the end of the last ice age. People of white British ancestry alive today are descendants of this population.

It was initially assumed that Cheddar Man had pale skin and fair hair, but his DNA paints a different picture, strongly suggesting he had blue eyes, a very dark brown to black complexion and dark curly hair.

The discovery shows that the genes for lighter skin became widespread in European populations far later than originally thought – and that skin colour was not always a proxy for geographic origin in the way it is often seen to be today.

Here’s the reconstruction in a BBC video. Cheddar Man is as we ought to have expected. Actually, the only thing that made me raise my eyebrows is that the research team consists of 6 white men and 1 white woman, kind of like how the SpaceX rocket team was mostly white men, too.

It would be nice if the research effort that is revealing the genetic diversity of our recent ancestors at least reflected a bit of that diversity today.

By the way, the comments on this reconstruction also reveal a tremendous amount of denial from the usual racists who think this is an invention cobbled up by scientists to appease radical leftists. This, also, is not surprising.


  1. says

    No way, a cheddar man should be cheeto-colored. Like, uh… Whatsisname.

    Meanwhile, you’ve probably encountered the kerfuffle over Nefertiti – some sculptor “re-created” her and, naturally, she looks mighty white. [newsweek]. It’s not like they don’t have wrapped up bits DNA from the pharoahs, do they?

    Racists are definitely having a problem understanding that we’re all African – and fairly recently.

  2. says

    Reminds me of an interview I saw with a British Nationalist on the TV a good few years ago, who claimed that you couldn’t claim to be truly British unless you could trace your line living on British soil back “a thousand generations”. Leaving aside the impossibility of and confusion that would result from such an attempt if you could do it, I thought at the time, “Like, back to the end of the Ice Age?” I guess it shows a dedication to a defective line of reasoning (and probably dodgy history and arithmetic) that might be admirable. I wonder how he’d feel about our approximately 300-generation ancestor if he was interviewed today.

    (Of course, the interview was a set-up for a genetics test that showed our boy wasn’t as pure as he’d imagined. Maybe he’s changed his mind since then. Or is just in a state of denial.)

  3. blf says

    a cheddar man should be cheeto-colored

    (I realise that comment was made in jest.) Actually, cheddar cheese comes in quite a range of yellow-ish colours. From Ye Pffft! of All Knowledge:

    Cheddar can be a deep to pale yellow (off-white) colour, or a yellow-orange colour when certain plant extracts are added. One commonly used spice is annatto, extracted from seeds of the tropical achiote tree. Originally added to simulate the colour of high-quality milk from grass-fed Jersey and Guernsey cows, annatto may also impart a sweet, nutty flavour. […]

    According to the BBC video in the OP, Cheddar Man could not digest milk, so I presume they also, ironically, could not eat cheese.

  4. quotetheunquote says

    @blf #3

    Well, he could have eaten it, he just would have had a very sad tummy afterwards!

  5. robro says

    …light skins were the result of a mutation that swept through Europe about 6,000 years ago.

    So you’re saying that YECs are correct and that gawd created humans just 6,000 years ago.

  6. says

    Is there a theory for why the light skinned mutation spread so much?

    It made them more aggressive and violent while simultaneously reducing their empathy.

    Wow, this evolutionary psychology stuff is easy.

  7. Patricia Phillips says

    @4 mijobagi – in one article I read, the speculation was the heavier reliance on cereals in the diet which led to a lack of vitamin D, and people w/ lighter skin color produce more vitamin D when they are in the sun.

  8. paxoll says

    @Mijobagi My guess is the theory is as the glacial ice receded during the current interglacial period and humans migrated north, the reduced sun exposure at that latitude caused significant health issues and that natural selection pressure on that small population to cause the rapid distribution of those genes. Succinctly, Small population, strong selection pressure.

  9. blf says

    Is there a theory for why the light skinned mutation spread so much?

    How Europeans evolved white skin:

    When it comes to skin color, the team found a patchwork of evolution in different places, and three separate genes that produce light skin, telling a complex story for how European’s skin evolved to be much lighter during the past 8000 years. The modern humans who came out of Africa to originally settle Europe about 40,000 years are presumed to have had dark skin, which is advantageous in sunny latitudes. And the new data confirm that about 8500 years ago, early hunter-gatherers in Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary also had darker skin: They lacked versions of two genes — SLC24A5 and SLC45A2 — that lead to depigmentation and, therefore, pale skin in Europeans today.

    But in the far north — where low light levels would favor pale skin — the team found a different picture in hunter-gatherers: Seven people from the 7700-year-old Motala archaeological site in southern Sweden had both light skin gene variants, SLC24A5 and SLC45A2. They also had a third gene, HERC2/OCA2, which causes blue eyes and may also contribute to light skin and blond hair. Thus ancient hunter-gatherers of the far north were already pale and blue-eyed, but those of central and southern Europe had darker skin.

    Then, the first farmers from the Near East arrived in Europe; they carried both genes for light skin. As they interbred with the indigenous hunter-gatherers, one of their light-skin genes swept through Europe, so that central and southern Europeans also began to have lighter skin. The other gene variant, SLC45A2, was at low levels until about 5800 years ago when it swept up to high frequency.


    The paper doesn’t specify why these genes might have been under such strong selection. But the likely explanation for the pigmentation genes is to maximize vitamin D synthesis, said paleoanthropologist Nina Jablonski of Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) […]. People living in northern latitudes often don’t get enough UV to synthesize vitamin D in their skin so natural selection has favored two genetic solutions to that problem — evolving pale skin that absorbs UV more efficiently or favoring lactose tolerance to be able to digest the sugars and vitamin D naturally found in milk. “What we thought was a fairly simple picture of the emergence of depigmented skin in Europe is an exciting patchwork of selection as populations disperse into northern latitudes,” Jablonski says. “This data is fun because it shows how much recent evolution has taken place.”

    As Ye Pffft! of All Knowledge notes:

    […] Light skin provides better absorption qualities of ultraviolet radiation. This helps the body to synthesize higher amounts of vitamin D for bodily processes such as calcium development. Light-skinned people who live near the equator with high sunlight are at an increased risk of folate depletion. As consequence of folate depletion, they are at a higher risk of DNA damage, birth defects, and numerous types of cancers, especially skin cancer.

    The distribution of indigenous light-skinned populations is highly correlated with the low ultraviolet radiation levels of the regions inhabited by them. Historically, light-skinned indigenous populations almost exclusively lived far from the equator, in high latitude areas with low sunlight intensity; for example, in Northwestern Europe.

    What I didn’t realise is there is also a connection to lactose tolerance (as mentioned by Jablonski):

    Some populations, from an evolutionary perspective, have a better genetic makeup for tolerating lactose than others. In Northern European countries, lack of Vitamin D from the sun is balanced by intaking more milk and calcium. These countries have built up tolerance to lactose. Oppositely, regions of the south, Africa for example, rarely experienced Vitamin D deficiency and therefore tolerance from milk consumption did not develop the same way as in Northern European countries. […]

  10. kestrel says

    @blf, #3: Common misconception. Not being able to drink milk (lactose intolerant) does not mean one can not eat cheese. You see, when you age cheese, this give the acidifying bacteria time to convert all the lacTOSE to lacTASE and that, most humans can digest. In fact discoveries of ancient pottery show that some of it had little holes all through it… the world’s first cheesecloth… suggesting that dairy animals were first utilized for cheese and not milk. This makes sense since at the time, everybody would be lactose intolerant. That gene for lactose tolerance did not appear for a while after domestication of dairy animals.

    Another item of interest: “cheddaring” is a certain process of how one treats the curd. (Chop it up in a certain way and mix it with small amounts of salt prior to molding and aging.) Sorry. I am a cheese maker. (And therefore, blessed.) :-)

    This is a really cool discovery and yes, I agree: we need more scientists and we need more diversity!

  11. says

    I’m sure the usual suspects will be claiming this is yet another part of the White Genocide conspiracy, a result of excessive political correctness etc.

  12. thecalmone says

    Didn’t they find a local man in Cheddar whose DNA showed him to be a direct descendant of Cheddar Man?

    Having spent quite some time in that area since my mother was born nearby, I can totally see that bloke as a true Cheddar man with his cheese, cider and pickled onions.

  13. Rich Woods says

    @NelC #2:

    (Of course, the interview was a set-up for a genetics test that showed our boy wasn’t as pure as he’d imagined. Maybe he’s changed his mind since then. Or is just in a state of denial.)

    That sounds to me like Garry Bushell. He’s a British journalist who years ago wrote for right-wing tabloids and who used to play in a skinhead band (we’re going back to the 80s here, when he also did music journalism on punk and metal, which is where I first read his scribbles). Some of the stuff he wrote in the tabloids was complete trash and he got a reputation for being homophobic. The skinhead thing was more Ska than the ‘Combat 18 White Is Right’ strand (or whatever the fuck they call it now; I can’t even remember what they called it then), but it didn’t help his reputation; that’s probably why he was picked for the television genetics show.

    All of the above is the impression I have left from 20-30 years ago, but I do remember watching the telly programme (which must have been about 15 years ago) and have a clear memory of him sitting in his house looking genuinely fascinated when it was revealed that he had a black ancestor from four generations back (or several more over many earlier generations). That’s when — rightly or wrongly — I got the impression that the way he’d been presented earlier in the programme was not entirely balanced.

    He still wrote shite in The Sun, though.

  14. blf says

    Didn’t they find a local man in Cheddar whose DNA showed him to be a direct descendant of Cheddar Man?

    Yes, reported in 1997, Briton Is Kin of Stone Age ‘Cheddar Man’:

    DNA test shows history teacher is direct descendant of 9,000-year-old skeleton.

    [… A]stonishingly bridging 90 centuries and 300 generations, [researchers] have found a direct descendant of the Stone Age man.

    He lives half a mile from the burial site and teaches history.

    “I’ve been in the cave a few times, but I never realized it was home,” 42-year-old Adrian Targett […]

    “It is not a perfect match,” Oxford’s Bryan Sykes told reporters. “One base pair — that is, one letter of the genetic alphabet — is different out of 300. But in 9,000 years, we would expect one to change by the normal rates of mutation. So it’s a pretty close match.”

    […] Sykes said the odds of finding a genetic match to Cheddar Man were not long, given the relatively small population of Stone Age Britain.

    If much of the population of Britain today is descended from the hunter-gatherers of Cheddar Man’s time, then many people will bear the imprint of a relative handful of prehistoric mothers. And their children were hunter-gatherers rather than farmers, Sykes told the BBC.

    “There has been an idea that most modern Europeans are descended from farmers that came in from the Middle East about 10,000 years ago, reaching Britain about 6,000 years ago,” Sykes said. “This kind of evidence shows that is probably not true and that modern Britons are in fact descended from the earlier inhabitants like Cheddar Man who existed on hunting and gathering and who were not farmers.”

    Cheddar Man may have more secrets to disclose. Scientists say it may be possible to determine the color of his hair and eyes and what diseases he might have had. […]

    And 21 years later, we do seem now to have determined their probable hair, skin, and eye colouring.

  15. irene says

    Didn’t they find a local man in Cheddar whose DNA showed him to be a direct descendant of Cheddar Man?

    Not quite. They showed the local man, Adrian Targett, had the same mtDNA as Cheddar Man, U5, meaning they shared a maternal ancestor. (There were two closer matches in the area, but they were children at the time and their names weren’t publicized.) There was a lot of talk about Targett’s ancestors having been in the area for 9,000 years, but in fact U5 was found all over Europe (about 11% of Europeans have it) and could have come from a much later immigrant.

  16. says

    Rich Woods @14: Fifteen years ago sounds about right. I’m going from memory, and I don’t think I knew the name at the time. I don’t recall any of the skinhead stuff in the programme, so I guess they only skimmed his history. Only four generations ago, though? Tch. Long cry from “a thousand generations”.

  17. Ulgaa says

    I can’t believe you all missed the truly great discovery about this, the existence of the mullet so long ago.

  18. blf says

    the existence of the mullet so long ago

    Both Mugilidae and Mullidae seem to have been around for millions of years. Cheddar Man would be a nearly-invisible nit on their timeline. And isn’t a fish, although I presume they ate some.

  19. Artor says

    “People of white British ancestry alive today are descendants of this population.”
    Umm… no. Cheddar Man’s people were overrun by a couple waves of invaders even before the Picts arrived, let alone the Celts, Saxons, and Normans. The chances of any white British being related to him is pretty small, considering.

  20. brasidas69 says

    The UK population is less racially diverse than that of the USA, so it is far more likely that any small group would be entirely white.

    So complaints that a team of 7 are all white are a bit much.

  21. John Morales says

    brasidas69, your claim relies on the skintone probability density function applicable to the UK population* being such that where “[all] 7 are all white” is an unremarkable outcome for an academic research team based there. Sounds like a mildly implausible claim to me; I saw plenty of non-white people the last time I was in the UK.

    But the sample population is not random, is it? It’s a subset of the research community that’s the sample, not the UK population at large.

    You clearly find it a satisfying explanation that there is nothing to explain, but I think you haven’t substantiated it.

    * Residents, not necessarily nationals.

  22. yknot says

    @Kestrel #11, you’re partly correct. LacTOSE is milk sugar, a di- saccharide, composed glucose and galactose. LacTASE is the enzyme which hydrolyzes lactose into separate mono-saccharides, both of which healthy adults can digest. Different cheese processes may further oxidize those sugars into other chemicals, all the way to CO2, which is how swiss cheese gets its “eyes”.

  23. robro says

    Artor @ #20 — It’s reasonable to say that the people of modern Britain are not just the descendants of these people. However, just as there is genetic evidence of Neanderthal in modern humans, I’m willing to bet this guy’s relatives procreated with the people who supplanted them. It’s important to remember that the ancient population migrations you cite, like many others, probably didn’t constitute enough people to actually wipe them out.

    The number of Normans, which we have the best records of, was not massive compared to the number of people already living in Britain. Wikipedia cites that about 8,000 Normans and other Europeans migrated to England after 1066 where the existing population is thought to have been a couple of million people. It would have been impractical for the new rulers to wipe out the existing population…who would do the work. Like many conquerors of the past, the Normans took over the legal system and established their language as the language of the aristocracy. The common folks adopted their ways and borrowed their language because they had to. At first intermarriage was rare, but within a hundred years it was common place.

  24. keusnua says

    Yknot, #24
    Since the cheese pedantry has already begun:
    There are some rather large number of Swiss cheeses. The one with the large eyes is the Emmenthal. Other Swiss cheeses I am familiar with (Gruyere, Vasherin, Raclette, various Tommes, and so many small local chesses that I can’t remember the name of) do not have notable eyes, or none at all. It’s a pretty cheesy country, with many varied cheeses!

  25. demonax says

    To Robro
    ‘It would have been impractical for the new rulers to wipe out the existing population’
    History tell us that they had a good try to do just that in the North; the Harrowing of the North.

  26. says

    Demonax @27: There is uncertainty about the degree of destruction involved in the Harrowing of the North. It was highly destructive, but it did not wipe out the inhabitants of the North of England. Many became refugees, and there needed to be some survivors for the Normans to have someone to lord over.

  27. yknot says

    @keusnua #26, To demonstrate how cheesy those cheesy Swiss are, they call their cheeses without eyes “blind cheeses”.
    Blessed are the cheesemakers.

  28. Ben Wright says

    @John Morales #23:

    Going by WP numbers (87%, not sure if that’s residents or citizens) the naive chance of a random group of 7 all being white is 38%. Of course, that there’s actually a decent chance of it coming up by chance is a long way short of saying that there isn’t systematic bias. There definitely is, it’s just hard to gauge how much impact it has.

  29. petesh says

    Not everyone is convinced: some Daily Mail readers suggest that “Cheddar Man” was a tourist, or that whites are more evolved.

  30. mnb0 says

    “It’s reasonable to say that the people of modern Britain are not just the descendants of these people.”
    As the amount of parents tends to double with every previous generation the probability that all humans are related approaches 1 – just go back far enough. Unless the people of Cheddar Man went extinct one way or another they will have lots and lots of descendants.

  31. mutzlimaa says

    @demonax # 27 While the Harrowing certainly seems to have been a horrific campaign (even with all the caveats that NelC #28 rightly adds), it doesn’t impact the general validity of the statement, even without considering the tons of people in the other parts of the modern UK, that weren’t targeted.

    The idea of different and subsequent archeologially distinct cultures always being some sort of invader is highly outdated. Never mind the idea of outright extermination/supplantation of cultures which existed chronologically earlier in the area in question. Even if the prevailing culture markedly changes and coincides with the arrival of new groups in an area, doesn’t mean that they either a.) Invaded in a modern, militaristic sense b.) Even if they did, actively suppressed members of the native culture or c.) completely replaced the people present. That’s not to say that something like that isn’t possible, just that it shouldn’t be anyones go-to theory for archaological research.

    So in Artors example in #20 there is no reason to assume, that cheddar mans descendants were at any point wiped out or replaced by members of these subsequent dominant cultures. It’s far more likely that they’d have become part of the new cultural paradigm by a process of integration and adaptation and intermarried with the (in most cases probably far less numerous, see e.g. the Saxons and Normans) newcomers.

    @yknot #29 Where did you hear that? I’ve certainly never heard of it and I was born and raised in the actual Emmen valley, better known as the eponymous Emmental. It would also be rather weird, since the vast majority of Swiss cheeses doesn’t have any holes, so it’d seem a bit backward to invent such a term for the norm.

  32. yknot says

    @mutzlimaa #33 I got it from Wikipedia, which cites this article:

    “The cheese industry calls these holes or tunnels “eyes.” Swiss cheese without eyes is known as “blind.” ”

    Although I now notice that the Wikipedia article included this parenthetical remark:
    “(The term is applied to cheeses of this style made outside Switzerland, such as Jarlsberg cheese, which originates in Norway)”
    That might explain why you hadn’t heard it before. I may have attributed the cheesy pun to the wrong cheesemakers.

    But it’s still a wonderfully cheesy pun.

  33. unclefrogy says

    just goes to show yah that people are not pure in any meaningful way, and if things happened in the past like they happen today there a was a lot of sex going on between people where ever people happened to find themselves
    uncle frogy