DNA Analysis Reveals Britain's Oldest Known Modern Man Had Dark Skin

  • DNA Analysis Reveals Britain's Oldest Known Modern Man Had Dark Skin

DNA Analysis Reveals Britain's Oldest Known Modern Man Had Dark Skin

The scientists from London's Natural History Museum and University College London (UCL) analysed DNA from an nearly complete Homo sapiens skeleton, known as Cheddar Man after it was found in a cave in Cheddar Gorge in south-western England in 1903. 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.

Cheddar Man was unearthed in 1903 in Gough's Cave at Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, and has been the topic of constant mystery and intrigue. The group, known as Western Hunter-Gatherers, migrated to Europe from the Middle East after the last Ice Age, about 12,000 years ago.

They would then have travelled west into Europe, before crossing the ancient land bridge called Doggerland which connected Britain to continental Europe.

"I first studied Cheddar Man more than 40 years ago, but could never have believed that we would one day have his whole genome - the oldest British one to date", said Chris Stringer, lead researcher in human origins at the Natural History Museum.

Further examination has shown that the man was short by today's standards - about 5ft 5in - and possibly died in his early 20s.

DNA, from inside the skull of Cheddar Man, was sequenced. The pair work together on Neanderthal reconstruction projects for other museums, and report that the project took about 3 months to carry off, Alfons Kennis shared, adding that the project was a challenge for them, given the completely different facial features: "It's really nice to make a more graceful man, not a heavy-browed Neanderthal".

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"Until recently it was always assumed that humans quickly adapted to have paler skin after entering Europe about 45,000 years ago", Natural History Museum researcher Tom Booth said.

"He is just one person, but also indicative of the population of Europe at the time", Booth said.

"Pale skin is better at absorbing UV light and helps humans avoid vitamin D deficiency in climates with less sunlight", he said. Experts say he was a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer who would have carved tools, fished and hunted animals. Today, around 10% of White British ancestry can be linked to that population.

Dutch "paleo artists" Alfons and Adrie Kennis created a likeness of Cheddar Man based on the British scientists' findings, showing a man with long curly hair, a short beard and striking blue eyes. Britain has been inhabited ever since, but the genetic makeup and consequent appearance of the population has varied considerably over this time.

A documentary describing the research, First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man, is due to air on UK's Channel 4 next week.