In 1903, workers digging a drainage trench in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, in Somerset, England, uncovered the remains of a young man sealed under a stalagmite. The figure, feet curled up underneath him, was small at about 165cm and would have weighed about 64kg when he died in his early 20s. The cause of death has still not been determined by paleontologists.
The skeleton’s antiquity was revealed when fossil experts dated his bones and realized that Cheddar Man — as he quickly became known — was nearly 10,000 years old.
This is still the oldest virtually complete skeleton that has been unearthed in the British Isles, although it is unclear whether the young man died in the cave or was brought there by fellow tribe members and was then buried there.
Illustration: Mountain people
A great many widely held — but incorrect — assumptions about the expected pale-skinned, fair-featured nature of Britain’s founders were promptly overturned, to the rage of some commentators and the joy of many.
“I just wish I knew about you when I was growing up and people asked me where I was ‘really’ from. North London, bruv,” British Labour Party Member of Parliament David Lammy said on Twitter.
The news was certainly intriguing, for apart from revealing some home truths about the implications of how skin color can change over time, the research underlines some essential and unexpected features about the ancestry of the British people.
It is now clear that about 10 percent of British genes come from the mesolithic hunter-gatherer folk, of which Cheddar Man was a member, said Mark Thomas of University College London, a geneticist involved in the latest study of Cheddar Man.
“That does not mean that 10 percent of the British population today is descended directly from him,” Thomas added. “It means that the average person in Britain today carries around 10 percent of the genes of these ancient hunter-gatherers.”
Thus, the DNA of Cheddar Man shows there is a 10,000-year-old unbroken genetic lineage from people who inhabited Britain long before agriculture reached its shores to the British men and women of today.
England is not a nation of farmers — or shopkeepers, for that matter — but can trace its ancestry to nomadic hunters, who 300 generations ago carved antlers to make harpoons for fishing, used bows and arrows, and trained dogs that would have assisted them in the hunt for animals such as red deer, aurochs and boar, as well as protect their masters from competing predators such as wolves.
Cheddar Man was a member of a population of nomadic hunters who thrived during the middle stone age, also known as the Mesolithic age, about 10,000 years ago. These were the western European hunter-gatherers, whose remains have been found in Spain, Luxembourg and Hungary.
Crucially, the DNA of these people also shows they had dark skin and blue eyes and were similar, genetically, to Cheddar Man.
At this time, Britain was a peninsula of northern Europe, linked by an area of land that now forms the seabed of the southern North Sea and the British Channel. As a result, nomadic people, often following migrating animals, undertook frequent visits and made the most of the British landscape, which was then flourishing in the wake of the retreat of the glaciers that had covered the country a few thousand years earlier.
However, change was at hand. Like the rest of the world, Europe was continuing to warm and ice caps were melting, raising sea levels.
About 8,000 years ago, the last land connection between Britain and Europe — a stretch of terrain called Doggerland, which linked north Norfolk with the Netherlands — was inundated. Britain became an island, and the few thousand people who were then roaming its forest and heaths in search of food were isolated. By accident, these hunter-gatherers became the founding mothers and fathers of Britain.
It is an intriguing scenario that raises a host of questions. If these dark-haired, dark-skinned people were the nation’s founders, what happened to people’s complexions in the intervening millennia? What triggered the emergence of the pale aspect of the typical Brit?
Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London traces the cause to the first farmers who reached England’s shores about 6,000 years ago, as agriculture spread eastward after its birth in the Middle East several thousand years earlier.
“These farming people would have had relatively poor diets, based only on one or two cereal crops, and would have lacked vitamin D. By contrast, hunter-gatherers, although few in number, probably had very healthy diets with lots of fish and liver that were rich in vitamin D. Cheddar Man had very healthy teeth, which suggests a good diet, for example,” Stringer said.
“Farming may have provided poorer diets in those days, but it also allowed far greater numbers of people to live per acre of land compared to those who lived as hunter-gatherers,” Stringer added. “In other words, they had the numbers and so, once farming became established in Britain, the genes for lighter skin would have taken over the population.”
The existence of blue eyes, also revealed by the Cheddar Man geneticists, is more difficult to explain.
“Using classic genetic surveys, it was thought that blue eyes first appeared in humans between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago,” Thomas said. “Now studies of ancient DNA are showing it was already well-established in some populations.”
However, how it became established is not known, nor is it clear that it conferred any evolutionary advantage on those with blue eyes.
“The continent was awash with migrations and it may be that the trait was just picked up and passed on to us,” Thomas added.
This point was endorsed by Richard Bates of St Andrews University, who said: “When we do more of this kind of deep genetics on other ancient remains, we are going to find an incredible diversity among the people of this time.”
“It is only when farming arrived that we became sedentary, and when that happened, we also got the concept of land ownership and with it the idea of defense — and in its wake came conflicts,” Bates said. “It took generations to occur, and it happened in many other parts of the world. Nevertheless, it was the biggest social change that ever affected our species. The story of Cheddar Man gives us a feeling for the profundity of that change.”
■ The earliest evidence of human occupation in Britain was found at Happisburgh, Norfolk. Stone tools and footprints discovered there have been dated as being about 900,000 years old. The people who made them might have been members of Homo antecessor, an early predecessor of the Homo sapiens.
■ The oldest human fossils in Britain were found in Boxgrove, West Sussex. The find consists of two teeth and a piece of lower leg bone that had been gnawed by a large carnivore and that probably belonged to a species known as Homo heidelbergensis, another early forebear of Homo sapiens.
■ Neanderthals became extinct about 40,000 years ago and the first members of Homo sapiens are thought to have begun visiting Britain around this time. The first continuous occupation did not begin until about 11,000 years ago.
■ The Roman conquest of Britain, which began in 43 AD under Emperor Claudius, is regarded by convention as the point when prehistoric Britain came to an end.
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