Wed, Feb 14, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Cheddar Man changes the way Britons think about their ancestors

The study of a 10,000-year-old man surprised people when it revealed his blue eyes and dark skin — and few predicted he would reshape the British view of their genetic heritage

By Robin McKie  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain people

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.

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.

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