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What Did Our Ancestors Really Look Like?

With nearly 10% of today’s population in Britain being linked to our ancestors, archaeologists have always believed that they resembled a ‘white bearded cave man’ … until now.

New research has unveiled that our earliest settlers had black skin, long dark hair and blue eyes! How do we know? Read more to find out.

How Do We Know?

Cheddar Man's Original Reconstruction
Cheddar Man’s Original Reconstruction

With nearly 82% of Britain’s population being White British, it is easy to see how research in the past has all pointed to our ancestors bearing similar skin pigmentation. Archaeologists originally agreed that Cheddar Man had pale skin and fair hair, but recent examination of his DNA has proven that he actually had blue eyes, dark curly hair and most surprisingly had either very dark brown or black complexion. Not exactly your typical ‘White British’ man is it?

Archaeologists made this breakthrough discovery by drilling a 2mm hole inside Cheddar Man’s skull to obtain a few milligrams of bone powder. From this they were able to extract enough chromosomes to detect a complete set of genes to give us the brand new image we can see today.

Who Was Cheddar Man?

Cheddar Man Replica Skeleton in Gough's Cave
Cheddar Man’s Replica Skeleton in Gough’s Cave

Cheddar Man is Britain’s oldest surviving complete skeleton, first excavated in 1903 in Gough’s Cave, close to the village of Cheddar (which is where they also make the cheese by the way!) He existed in a time just after our oldest surviving ancestors first arrived in Britain, at a time known as the Middle Stone Age, or Mesolithic Age for all you fancy archaeologists out there! The approximate date of his skeleton takes us back approximately 9,000 years to 7150BC.

A documentary in 1997 compared Cheddar Man’s molar (tooth) to the living residents of Cheddar Village, showing an approximate 10% match on DNA. This was an incredible breakthrough for the 90’s and added to the theory that we weren’t so different to our ancestors despite the huge time difference.

Where Did He Come From?

Cheddar Man Facial Reconstruction 2018
Cheddar Man’s Facial Reconstruction February 2018

The recent results of Cheddar Man’s DNA have implied that he was of a Middle Eastern origin, possibly migrated towards the Middle East from Africa, which could explain the new research about his appearance. Interestingly, he would have been one of the last groups of people that would have been able to WALK across the English Channel, as he existed in a time when Britain had not yet become an island. Archaeologists today call that piece of land that separates England and France ‘Doggerland’, also known as ‘Britain’s Atlantis.’

Why Do We Look Different Today?

This is the million-dollar question that cannot be conclusively answered, but that doesn’t stop us trying!

British Invasions
30% of White British DNA has German ancestry from the Anglo-Saxon Invasion

For starters, Britain is an island of countless invasions, from Celtic origins to ensuing invasions from the Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans; it’s no wonder that every group of settlers have left their mark on our land and our heritage. But when considering Cheddar Man is 5 times older than any Roman in Britain, surely we have to dig a little deeper than that!

Scientists have a much more evolutionary explanation why our skin colour has changed over time: bad British weather! Come on… let’s face it, you don’t travel to London for the weather do you? Britain doesn’t exactly have the same attraction as the Bahamas does it?!

Populations all over Europe became lighter skinned over time because pale skin absorbs more sunlight, a natural process our skin develops in order to absorb more Vitamin D. Descendants of Cheddar Man underwent somewhat of a revolution 5,000 years ago when they started to farm for the first time, which in effect would have also reduced the amount of Vitamin D they were consuming from oily fish and similar food supplies, also adding to a change in their skin pigmentation.

Biologist Yoan Diekman from The University College of London rightly points out that the connection between Britishness and Whiteness is ‘not an immutable truth. It has always changed and will change.’

Want to Learn More?

Channel 4 have just finished a brand new Documentary called ‘First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 year old man’ which will be aired on Sunday 18th February. In the documentary, archaeologists go to London’s Natural History Museum where Cheddar Man on display and attempt to track his ancient DNA to provide us with a reconstruction of his face.

Map of Somerset
Map of Somerset

If you want to see the skull for yourself, head to the Human Evolution Gallery inside the Natural History Museum and it won’t cost you a penny! Alternatively, if you wish to visit Gough’s cave and Cheddar Gorge, it’s about a 3 hour drive from London and can be linked in nicely on a day trip with Glastonbury, Bristol or Bath, which are all within an hours drive from the village. With our private tours, you can always change the destinations to make your own itinerary. Why not consider a visit to Gough’s Cave on our tour to Glastonbury and Stonehenge below?!



Glastonbury and Stonehenge

Happy Travels!

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