A new look at Cheddar Man

by Mary Caperton Morton
Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Cheddar Man's dark skin defies conventionally held ideas that Britons have long been light-skinned. Credit: ┬ęTom Barnes/Channel 4.

In 1903, a skeleton was found in a limestone cave in Cheddar Gorge, near Somerset, England. Radiocarbon dating in the 1970s revealed the remains to be more than 10,000 years old, making it the oldest near-complete human skeleton found in Britain. Now, as yet unpublished research suggests Cheddar Man’s genome reveals a surprisingly different appearance for the Mesolithic man from what’s long been thought, according to researchers who analyzed DNA from the skeleton.

In 1998, a team from the University of Manchester sculpted the first reconstruction of Cheddar Man, depicting a Caucasian-looking man in his 20s with brown hair, brown eyes and white skin. The new reconstruction is dramatically different, depicting a dark-skinned person with brown hair and blue eyes.

To access Cheddar Man’s DNA, a team from London’s Natural History Museum led by Selina Brace drilled a tiny hole into the ancient skull and harvested bone powder from an inner ear bone known as the petrous. The petrous is one of the densest bones in the human body, where genetic material is likely to remain well preserved over long time spans. Researchers then shotgun sequenced the DNA, compiling many sequenced fragments to create a nearly complete library of Cheddar Man’s genome. By matching known genetic markers for physical traits such as eye, hair and skin color, the team found a 76 percent chance that Cheddar Man had a notably dark complexion, as well as a high likelihood he had blue eyes.

“Until recently, it was always assumed that humans quickly adapted to have paler skin after entering Europe about 45,000 years ago,” co-author Tom Booth said in a statement. “Pale skin is better at absorbing ultraviolet light and helps humans avoid vitamin D deficiency in climates with less sunlight.”

Paleoartists Adrie and Alfons Kennis then applied these findings to create a new model of Cheddar Man’s face in full three-dimensional detail. The model will be featured in a new television documentary, “The First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man,” and will be on display at the museum.

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