Researchers Shed New Light On Origins Of Cheddar Man

Researchers have extracted DNA from “Cheddar Man,” a Mesolithic skeleton discovered back in 1903 at Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset.

cheddar man
By C. G. Seligman and F. G. Parsons ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Scientists at the Natural History Museum in Britain have managed to give us greater insight into what the life of Cheddar Man might have been like. As the oldest near-complete skeleton of our species, this new knowledge gives us a good look at what life might have been like for one of our early ancestors who lived around 10000 years ago.

Dr Tom Booth, a postdoctoral researcher working with the Museum’s human remains, stated that “Until recently, it was always assumed that humans quickly adapted to have paler skin after entering Europe about 45000 years ago…Pale skin is better at absorbing UV light and helps humans avoid vitamin D deficiency in climates with less sunlight.”

However, Cheddar Man has genetic markers that are more in line with someone from sub-Saharan Africa, which is consistent with other Mesolithic remains discovered elsewhere in Europe – seemingly confirming early humanity’s migration out of Africa.

“Cheddar Man subverts people’s expectations of what kinds of genetic traits go together…It seems that pale eyes entered Europe long before pale skin or blond hair, which didn’t come along until after the arrival of farming…[Cheddar Man] reminds us that you can’t make assumptions about what people looked like in the past based on what people look like in the present, and that the pairings of features we are used to seeing today aren’t something that’s fixed,” Booth continued.

As mentioned above, we now know more about the history of the famed Cheddar Man. He was a hunter-gatherer with dark skin and blue eyes, stood around 166 centimeters tall, and died in his twenties. The Natural History Museum reports that he was discovered back in 1903 during improvements to draining for the popular tourist attraction, Gough’s Cave.

“Cheddar Man belonged to a group of people who were mainly hunter gatherers,” says Booth. “They were hunting game as well as gathering seeds and nuts and living quite complex lives.”

In addition to a diet made up mostly of seeds and nuts, Cheddar Man would have also eaten red deer, aurochs, and some freshwater fish.

The DNA information that gave us a better look at this ancient human specimen came from markers discovered from a rather unlikely source, according to Booth.

“’We had a lot of genetic data but you have to kind of know what you’re looking for…I had taken a recreational DNA test that looked specifically at physical traits, and they had helpfully listed the markers they use to come up with their assessments…We were able to send that list of markers to our bioinformatics lab to help us develop a portrait of Cheddar Man.”

“’Of course facial reconstruction is part art and part science…but there are some standards of how thick the tissue is in different regions of people’s faces so they can use those conventions to develop the morphology of the face.”

While Cheddar Man may look far different from modern-day Europeans, British people share roughly 10% of their genetic ancestry with the population that he belonged to, according to the National History Museum. The current theory is that the Mesolithic population was later replaced by farmers who migrated into the area soon after, which are closer direct descendants to modern Europeans. When thinking of the origins of modern humanity, it’s tempting to try to project our own likeness onto our ancestors. It’s clear from the new information discovered about Cheddar Man that early homo sapiens, while still part of the same species, may have looked quite different from what we would have expected. As one of the oldest human specimens we’ve found to date, this new DNA find combines genetics with creativity to paint a picture of our ancient ancestors.