Science

Dark Skin of its Earliest Inhabitants is Challenging the Way Britain Thinks of Race

A new discovery overturns the assumption that Britishers were always pale-skinned and that later events like colonisation led to the influx of dark-skinned populations.

Cheddar Man's facial reconstruction. Credit: Channel 4

Cheddar Man’s facial reconstruction. Credit: Channel 4

Cheddar Man, a 10,000-year-old Mesolithic hunter-gatherer, has provided the first clues to the appearance of humans of those times. His skeleton, first discovered in 1903 in Gough’s Cave in Somerset, is the oldest complete skeleton to have been found in England.

New research conducted by scientists at the National History Museum and University College, London, on Cheddar Man’s DNA using pioneering genetic sequencing methods has revealed he was dark-skinned, had curly hair and blue eyes. They attribute this discovery to a “stroke of luck” by which they found scraps of DNA in his ear, reports The Telegraph.

The pigmentation genes extracted from Cheddar Man’s DNA were discovered to be most similar to residents of sub-Saharan Africa, implying that he and other early Britons were dark-skinned. Bio-archaeologist Tom Booth said that Cheddar Man may be one person but is “also indicative of the population of Europe at the time. They had dark skin and most of them had pale coloured eyes, either blue or green, and dark brown hair.”

These findings overturn common assumptions that the stereotypic Britisher is fair-skinned. Further, research has shown that fair skin may have come up as late as only 6,000 years ago.

Such findings are rare because of the fragility of the DNA molecule. Selina Brace, who worked closely on Cheddar Man, explains that the cool conditions in Gough’s Cave along with the presence of natural mineral deposits helped preserve his DNA.

According to her, the best places to look for DNA are usually inside dense bones that can protect the DNA from the elements. Cheddar Man’s DNA was found inside his inner ear bone, the petrous, which is the densest bone in the human body.

Cheddar Man belonged to a group of hunter-gatherers who had migrated out of Africa, through the Middle East to Britain through continental Europe and over the now-flooded land bridge, Doggerland, that connected the two, per The Guardian.

A conservator examines the complete skeleton of Cheddar Man before it went on display at the Natural History Museum, UK. Credit: NHM UK

A conservator examines the complete skeleton of Cheddar Man before it went on display at the Natural History Museum, UK. Credit: NHM UK

According to Booth, these hunter-gatherers were “hunting game as well as gathering seeds and nuts and living quite complex lives.” Their diet may have included seeds and nuts as well as game like red deer and aurochs, according to the Natural History Museum.

Similar to Europeans at that time, Cheddar Man was also lactose intolerant. “Cheddar Man existed before farming had spread to Britain. By looking, we can tell he would have been unable to digest raw milk”, Booth told the Washington Post.

Multiple occupations of Britain via the Doggerland land-bridge had failed but the population at Cheddar Man’s time succeeded and contributed their DNA to future populations. A subsequent analysis revealed that “modern-day Britishers share upto 10% of their genetic ancestry with the European population that the Cheddar Man belonged to” but “are not direct descendants.”

These findings challenge the assumption that Britishers were always pale-skinned and that later events like colonisation led to the influx of dark-skinned populations and the view that these ‘outsiders’ moved in and settled in ‘their’ country, Dan Jones of CNN wrote.

Yoan Dieckmann, a researcher from University College, London, said, “The historical perspective that you get just tells you that things change, things are in flux, and what may seem as a cemented truth that people who feel British should have white skin, through time is not at all something that is an immutable truth.”

As Aarathi Prasad, a biologist at University College, wrote in The Guardian, “The societal and historical message we intercepted and deciphered as children was that white skin was the prerequisite” for a British identity. But now that we know more about Cheddar Man and his skin colour based on scientific investigations instead of assumptions founded on personal preferences, Prasad said, now might be the time to remember that “skin colour has never been a sound proxy for ‘race’, nor for nationality”.

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