In perhaps one of the most surprising pieces of science news from February 2018, it was revealed that Cheddar Man, a human figure found in the caves of Cheddar Gorge, had dark skin. This led to a furore of discussion on social media with reactions ranging from pleasant surprise to more than mild discomfort. But the fact is, we should have expected nothing less due to what we know about the antiquity of the early colonisation of The British Isles.
About Cheddar Man
Cheddar Man has been a matter of both local and national interest. Found in Gough’s Cave within the Gorge, he’s been the centre of many studies since the caves opened to the public. Cheddar Man is not of the earliest inhabitants of Mendip Hills; the oldest remains predate him by some 5000 years. However, Cheddar Man is Britain’s oldest complete human skeleton. He was once left in situ for visitors to see but is now at the Natural History Museum.
Previous analyses of his remains revealed that Cheddar Man is certainly male, in his early 20s and his remains deposited around 9000 years ago. Surprisingly, he has many descendants still in and around the town, all identified through genetics. His end was apparently violent and he may have suffered an infection that got into the structure of his skull.
A report last week revealed that he would have had dark skin, dark curly hair and blue eyes, which surprised some.
How Did They Discover He Had Dark Skin?
The 2018 gene sequencing was much more thorough. It was designed to challenge claims that the 1990s study was contaminated with modern DNA. Plus, new methods and discoveries in the area of genetics mean researchers were able to provide a complete analysis of what he may have looked like. It helped that his DNA was largely intact – something that the researchers could only hope.
They examined genes associated with hair and skin, finding a significant number in common with North Africans. The results were astounding – the genetic structure suggested dark hair, probably curly, with a skin tone from dark brown to black. It also provided yet more evidence that the paler skin of North Europeans is a relatively recent phenomenon, developing from the lower levels of light and longer winters and from elsewhere geographically.
Explaining Early Human Migration
As the glaciers retreated, early humans were able to spread farther north, taking advantage of the new resources in the wake of glacial melt. There were multiple land bridges between the European mainland and the British Isles, one of which did not disappear until around 2000 years after Cheddar Man was buried. This is Dogger Island in the North Sea, now known to fishing trawlers as Dogger Bank. This was not the only land bridge though; Cheddar Man or his ancestors would have come from Central France and Northern Spain, having crossed from North Africa via Gibraltar. We know that darker skin is the norm in humans; the darker a person’s skin is, the better it is for filtering out harmful UV rays. The problem is that UV rays also carry Vitamin D. This is why recent migrants from Central Africa to Northern Europe experience health problems and require supplements – the protective barrier is reducing their Vitamin D intake.
But what about paler skinned people who now occupy Northern Europe? They came much later and not across the Mediterranean from North Africa. Caucasians came from the Indo-European stock (sometimes known as Aryan) migrating from Eastern Europe and the Near East. We all came from Africa, but they left much earlier and went in another direction before heading into Europe. The result is a dominant white European race in northern and western Europe that eventually bred with and diluted the darker skin of the earlier migrants.