You might not think it immediately, but this is one of Britain’s earliest inhabitants.
The reconstruction is based on the 10,000-year-old remains of “Cheddar Man,” whose skeleton was discovered in a cave in Cheddar Gorge, southern England over 100 years ago. New research, coupled with the first genetic analysis of his remains, has revealed that he likely had dark skin and blue eyes.
Now, there are human remains from Britain that do date back further, but Cheddar Man is the oldest near-complete modern human skeleton – and the oldest ancient human genome sequenced – in the UK. And by unlocking the secrets of his DNA, the researchers have revealed some fairly surprising results.
One of the most striking features of Cheddar Man is that he was dark skinned. Until fairly recently it was assumed that when humans entered Europe some 45,000 years ago, they quickly adapted to the environment by evolving paler skin. But the genetic analysis revealed at even 10,000 years ago, the hunter-gathers of northern Europe had a much darker complexion, with the genetic markers showing it was likely most similar to those seen in sub-Saharan Africa.
Not only that, but this was paired with incredibly pale, piercing eyes. While the exact color of the eyes could not be determined, it is likely that they were either pale green or more likely blue. This was all framed by a disheveled mop of dark brown hair. This is consistent with what other fossils discovered from this time in other parts of Europe are now revealing.
“Cheddar Man subverts people's expectations of what kinds of genetic traits go together,” said the Natural History Museum’s Dr Tom Booth.
“He reminds us that you can't make assumptions about what people looked like in the past based on what people look like in the present, and that the pairings of features we are used to seeing today aren't something that's fixed.”
Back when Cheddar Man was walking the landscape, Britain was quite different. He would have been stalking red deer and aurochs through the dense forests that had begun to spread across the land, avoiding the wolves and bears hunting the same prey. At that time, Britain was still attached to mainland Europe, as the North Sea was in fact a massive river delta, providing these early colonizers with an ample supply of fresh fish.
“Cheddar Man belonged to a group of people who were mainly hunter-gatherers,” explained Dr Booth. “They were hunting game as well as gathering seeds and nuts and living quite complex lives.” While the Victorians who dug him up likely chucked away tools and other artifacts during the first excavation, other sites found in the UK dating to the same age shed light on how he might have lived.
An 11,000-year-old Mesolithic settlement, for example, has revealed skull-caps made from the remains of red deer, which many think may have been used as headdresses. They have also found a variety of semiprecious stones, such as amber and hematite, and even the oldest Mesolithic art in Britain in the form of an engraved shell pendant. It is impossible to know whether Cheddar Man was engaged in similar activities, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility.
Cheddar Man has always been a bit of mystery. Standing roughly 166 centimeters tall, he died when he was in his twenties. But while most other Mesolithic graves have shown a strong tradition for burying their dead in caves, many at this time were buried communally. Cheddar Man is noticeable for his isolation. This means he may have been special, or may have simply curled up on his own and died.
The findings are part of the TV show First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man, which will be aired in the UK on Channel 4 on February 18.