The First Britons were Black
Ten-thousand-year-old Cheddar Man may have been discovered in 1903, but his skeleton keeps on revealing revelations about life in the Mesolithic. The skeleton is the oldest one in Britain of the Mesolithic people who resettled the island 11,000 years ago following the end of the last ice age. Cheddar man’s people are believed to have migrated from mainland Europe, using the Doggerland land bridge which now lies beneath the southern North Sea.
Cheddar Man, as his name suggests was discovered in the vicinity of Cheddar Gorge in Somerset. During his lifetime, the area would have been heavily wooded, with a plentitude of game and wildlife to provide for him and his tribe. However, life was still perilous, and Cheddar man died of a fractured skull sometime during his twenties. His people buried him under the floor of Gough’s Cave, one of the largest caves in the gorge complex.
In the 1990’s, scientists extracted mitochondrial DNA from one of Cheddar man’s teeth and compared it to DNA from twenty local volunteers. Two of the test group proved a match- demonstrating that Cheddar man’s family remains in the area millennia after his death. More recently, scientists from University College London have extracted DNA from Cheddar man’s skull and used it to sequence his genome. This more advanced sequencing was designed to reveal details of Cheddar man’s appearance that could not be shown by a facial reconstruction alone.
The results of the tests have been controversial. For although Cheddar man was revealed to have blue eyes and very dark, curly hair, his DNA also showed that he had very dark brown skin. Comparison of Cheddar Man’s genome with other contemporary Mesolithic remains from Spain, Hungary and Luxembourg indicate this was a general trait- meaning that pale skin is much more recent than previously supposed.
Lighter skin tones develop to allow the body to synthesize vitamin D via sunlight. Experts believe that lighter skin became prevalent in Europe in one or two ways. Migrants from the Middle East could have been introduced it when they arrived with agriculture during the Neolithic. These eastern incomers, who came in Britain 4000 years ago, already had pale skin, the experts claim because the lack of vitamin D from their cereal-based diet caused their skin to lighten so their bodies could acquire more of the essential vitamin from the sun. However, it is equally likely that the darker skins of Mesolithic Britain’s had already started to lighten as the lack of UV light in the more temperate northern regions could not be absorbed by their darker skin tone.
Other bones from Britain have revealed even more information about another individual’s past-and have helped confirm their identity.