Face to face with Cheddar Man

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Cheddar Man’s DNA was recently successfully sequenced, allowing for a full facial reconstruction. (Photo: Channel 4)

The nearly 10,000-year-old skeleton who came to be known as ‘Cheddar Man’ was found in 1903, in Gough’s Cave at Cheddar Gorge, Somerset. In more recent times, his remains have been on display in the Human Origins Hall at the Natural History Museum. Despite his fame, until recently little was known about this individual. Now a team from UCL and the Natural History Museum has successfully sequenced his DNA for the first time, revealing a wealth of details about his physical appearance – with dramatic implications for our understanding of how inhabitants of Mesolithic Britain looked.

The results are surprising: they suggest that Cheddar Man had blue eyes, dark-coloured curly hair, and ‘dark to black’ skin pigmentation. This is in stark contrast to earlier theories, which argued that he had lighter skin. It also adds to mounting evidence that lighter skin pigmentation in general may have been a much more recent occurrence in northern Europe than previously thought.

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

The skull of the individual known as ‘Cheddar Man’, discovered in Gough’s Cave at Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, in 1903.

At the outset, the success of the project was far from certain, as no DNA from a British individual of this antiquity had been sequenced before. Surprisingly, his DNA was remarkably well preserved, which may have been due to the cool, stable conditions of the limestone cave in which his bones were found. Because of this, the team was able to extract enough genetic material to inform a full facial reconstruction – created by model-makers Adrie and Alfons Kennis – and allow us to come face to face with one of Britain’s Mesolithic inhabitants.

‘I first studied Cheddar Man more than 40 years ago, but could never have believed that we would one day have his whole genome – the oldest British one to date,’ said Professor Chris Stringer, Research Leader in Human Origins at the Natural History Museum. ‘To go beyond what the bones tell us and get a scientifically based picture of what he actually looked like is a remarkable (and from the results, quite surprising) achievement.’

This article appeared in CA 337

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