In 1903, the remains of a 10,000-year-old man were discovered in the Cheddar Gorge of Somerset, England. Dubbed the “Cheddar Man,” it remains the oldest almost complete skeleton ever found in Britain. Over the years, research has shown that he stood around five-foot-five, he was well-fed and he likely died in his early 20s. Now, as Paul Rincon of the BBC reports, genome analysis has revealed that Cheddar Man had dark brown skin and blue eyes—a discovery that adds to a growing body of research indicating that the evolution of human skin color was far more complex than previously believed.
The genome analysis was conducted by researchers at London’s Natural History Museum, who extracted DNA from Cheddar man's inner ear bone, located at the base of the skull. Experts at the University College of London then used the DNA information to create a facial reconstruction of Cheddar Man, rendering his dark complexion, deep brown hair, and light eyes in life-like detail. The research and remodeling process will be chronicled in an upcoming documentary, The First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 year old man, which will air on the UK’s Channel 4.
As Hannah Devlin of the Guardian explains, Cheddar Man’s appearance has been the subject of considerable interest because he belonged to the first wave of migrants to establish a continuous human presence in Britain after around 11,700 years ago; before that, humans had temporarily settled in the region and cleared out during various ice ages. Around ten percent of people with white British ancestry are descended from this group of first settlers, and previous reconstructions of Cheddar Man have depicted him with pale skin and light hair.
But the new discovery suggests that light skin evolved in European populations much later than is commonly believed. “People define themselves by which country they’re from, and they assume that their ancestors were just like them,” Alfons Kennis, who worked on the reconstruction, tells New Scientist. “And then suddenly new research shows that we used to be a totally different people with a different genetic makeup.”
The results of Cheddar Man’s genome analysis align with recent research that has uncovered the convoluted nature of the evolution of human skin tone. The first humans to leave Africa 40,000 years ago are believed to have had dark skin, which would have been advantageous in sunny climates. But humans did not uniformly develop light skin when they reached the colder regions of Europe. In 2015, for example, a study of ancient DNA found that while individuals in northern Europe had pale skin, hair and eyes around 8,500 years ago, humans in the regions of Spain, Luxembourg and Hungary likely had dark skin. Genes for light skin may have only become widespread in Britain around 6,000 years ago, when farmers from the Middle East migrated to the region and began to reproduce with indigenous populations, according to the BBC’s Rincon.
A study published last year added another wrinkle to the complex history of human skin color, revealing that certain genetic variants associated with light skin developed more than 900,000 years ago—before Homo sapiens evolved. As Jason Daley of Smithsonian.com reported at the time, the study also found that “[t]hree of the genes associated with the darkest skin are likely to have evolved from genes for lighter skin tones.”
And as it happens, details about Cheddar Man’s skin and eye color were not the only intriguing finds to result from the DNA analysis. Despite his name, Cheddar Man would have been unable to digest milk as an adult. Lactose tolerance only spread through Europe several thousands of years later during the Bronze Age, according to the BBC’s Rincon. Speaking to New Scientist, Ian Barnes, a project scientist at the Natural History Museum, noted that Cheddar Man also had a unique facial structure.
“For me, it’s not just the skin color that’s interesting, it’s that combination of features that make him look not like anyone that you’d see today,” Barnes explained. “Not just dark skin and blue eyes, because you can get that combination, but also the face shape. So all of this combines together and make him just not the same as people you see around today.”