They call him Cheddar Man.
He lived more than 10,000 years ago, had brown hair, blue eyes and “dark to black” skin. To the surprise of many, he is believed to have been the first modern Briton.
A new project from London's Natural History Museum and University College London has revealed groundbreaking DNA results that give a much clearer image of early British inhabitants. Cheddar Man's skeleton was discovered in 1903 in Gough's Cave, located in Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, England. It is thought that the cool temperature in the cave helped to preserve the skeleton's valuable DNA.
“If the body was deposited in a good environment, where there was a cool and constant temperature, then the petrous bone is a good place to find useful ancient DNA,” said the Natural History Museum's Selina Brace, who specializes in the study of ancient DNA. Scientists obtained DNA from Cheddar Man by drilling a 2-millimeter hole in his skull and extracting bone powder.
Initially, it was assumed that the man, who died in his 20s, had pale skin, but new analysis and facial reconstruction have revealed quite the opposite. It is now believed that Cheddar Man’s ancestors arrived in Britain via the Middle East after leaving Africa.
“Cheddar Man is special because he represents the population occupying Europe at the time,” said Tom Booth, a bio-archaeologist at the museum. “They had dark skin, and most of them had pigmented eyes, either blue or green.” Data and software used in forensics gave Booth and the team a clearer understanding of Cheddar Man's skin pigmentation and how dark it was. The investigation into the skeletal remains revealed that Cheddar Man had "genetic markers of skin pigmentation usually associated with sub-Saharan Africa."
“Cheddar Man's skeleton revealed damage to the front of the skull, which led us to believe he had a violent death. But when we looked again, it appeared likely that the damage occurred since being dug up,” Booth explained. “It's quite hard to figure out from the bones how he died, as most illnesses don't leave a trace on human remains.”
Using 3-D printing, Adrie and Alfons Kennis were able to bring Cheddar Man to life. The model took several months to build and is described as “truly unique.” Booth described their work as “amazing” and said the two brothers are skilled “wizards” who were able to bring years of hard work and research to life.
Experts say the ancestor was a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer who would have spent his days carving tools, fishing and hunting animals. Researchers say he was around 166 centimeters (5'4 inches) in height. It is believed that Cheddar Man is related to 1 in 10 people living across the United Kingdom today. (Booth also said that, ironically, Cheddar Man was 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 said.
It didn't take long for Cheddar Man to trend worldwide on Twitter. Reactions to the extraordinary findings were mixed. Some praised the work of those involved with the reconstruction of Britain's oldest skeleton.
“Some excellent work by some brilliant colleagues — dark skinned and blue eyed Cheddar Man, one of the first successful colonizers of Britain. How cool is this?” one Twitter user said.
Others focused on the racial tension in Britain and pointed out that perhaps not all Brits would be happy about their ties to the ancient human.
“Oh my. There's going to be some very unhappy racist Britons out there today,” read one tweet.
In true British style, many social media users reacted to Wednesday's news with celebrity comparisons and cheese-related puns that did not disappoint.
“Cheddar man: Black Britons date fromages ago,” tweeted one user.
Despite the scientific development, some appeared to be disheartened to discover that the Cheddar Man trending topic was unrelated to food.
“Quite disappointed seeing that 'Cheddar Man' is trending to find out that the first Briton wasn't in fact made of cheese,” one tweeted.
Not wanting to miss out on the fun, television personality Piers Morgan was quick to compare the ancient fossil to successful business magnate Lord Alan Sugar.
British station Channel 4 will air a TV documentary titled “The First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000-Year-Old Man” next week. The documentary was filmed last summer.
Booth, who worked on the project for almost four years, said the Cheddar Man story is far from over. “The great thing is, because he's so well preserved, we'll be able to get more and more data from Cheddar Man all the time,” he said.
In the future, Booth said, “we'll be seeking more information on Cheddar's diet, lifestyle and taking a look at common diseases from this time period.”
“We don't have any other complete skeletons from this period,” he said. “They're usually in bits and pieces. Therefore, we're determined to use Cheddar to find out as much as we can. He'll definitely leave a great legacy.”
Cheddar Man's complete skeleton has been lent to the museum and is currently on display.