DNA testing of a 10,000-year-old British skeleton upends a common idea about race

Genetic analysis reveals that the first Brit probably looked like this.
Genetic analysis reveals that the first Brit probably looked like this.
Image: UCL
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When the 10,000-year-old skeleton known as Cheddar Man was first discovered, researchers assumed that the man had had light skin—in keeping with the widely accepted idea that early Britons had fair complexions, just as their descendants do today. But new research shows that the skin pigment of the world’s earliest known Brit was, in fact, dark brown.

The Cheddar Man is Britain’s oldest complete skeleton, found in a cave near the village of Cheddar in southwest England in 1903. Scientists have been studying the skeleton ever since. Thanks to new technology, researchers at University College London and the Natural History Museum were recently able to genetically analyze the skeleton using DNA extracted from the skull and to make a facial reconstruction. The results, announced on Feb. 7, show that this Brit—contrary to common cultural assumptions about about the association between skin pigmentation and geographic origins—had dark brown skin and blue eyes.

To reach this conclusion, researchers extracted DNA from the bone powder in the skeleton’s skull. The genetic material was remarkably well preserved, which the team attributes to the fact that Cheddar Man was in a cave for so long. Then they sequenced the Cheddar Man’s genome, and built a face based on the genetic information and other archaeological evidence. The whole story will be presented in an upcoming Channel 4 documentary, First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man.

“Cheddar Man’s genetic profile places him with several other Mesolithic-era Europeans from Spain, Hungary and Luxembourg whose DNA has already been analyzed,” UCL genetics professor Mark Thomas said in a statement. “These ‘Western Hunter-Gatherers’ migrated into Europe at the end of the last ice age and the group included Cheddar Man’s ancestors.”

Tom Booth, an archaeologist at the Natural History Museum who worked on the project, believes that the finding shows much more than just what an early Brit looked like. The discovery of Cheddar Man’s dark skin shows “that these imaginary racial categories that we have are really very modern constructions, or very recent constructions, that really are not applicable to the past at all,” he told The Guardian.

Indeed, the findings line up with some of the latest genetic research on race, indicating that skin color doesn’t tell us as much as once was thought about a person’s racial or geographic background. A study published in Science in October, for example, challenged the notion of skin color as a classifier for race at all. It found that, contrary to the idea that pale skin emerged after humans began settling outside of Africa, gene variants for light skin pigments seem to have developed before Homo sapiens began migrating from the continent. Associated light pigments are found in various indigenous African populations.

Now we know that some of the early migrants from Africa also probably maintained dark pigmentation for millennia after they left humanity’s home, and traveled to the place where the pale pink English rose now grows.