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Cheddar Man: DNA shows early Briton had dark skin

DNA-Shows-That-Early-Brit-Were-Dark-Skin

A cutting-edge scientific analysis shows that a Briton from 10,000 years ago had dark brown skin and blue eyes.

Researchers from London's Natural History Museum extracted DNA from Cheddar Man, Britain's oldest complete skeleton, which was discovered in 1903.

University College London researchers then used the subsequent genome analysis for a facial reconstruction.

It underlines the fact that the lighter skin characteristic of modern Europeans is a relatively recent phenomenon.

No prehistoric Briton of this age had previously had their genome analysed.

As such, the analysis provides valuable new insights into the first people to resettle Britain after the last Ice Age.

The analysis of Cheddar Man's genome - the "blueprint" for a human, contained in the nuclei of our cells - will be published in a journal, and will also feature in the upcoming Channel 4 documentary The First Brit, Secrets Of The 10,000-year-old Man.

Cheddar Man's remains had been unearthed 115 years ago in Gough's Cave, located in Somerset's Cheddar Gorge. Subsequent examination has shown that the man was short by today's standards - about 5ft 5in - and probably died in his early 20s.

Prof Chris Stringer, the museum's research leader in human origins, said: "I've been studying the skeleton of Cheddar Man for about 40 years

"So to come face-to-face with what this guy could have looked like - and that striking combination of the hair, the face, the eye colour and that dark skin: something a few years ago we couldn't have imagined and yet that's what the scientific data show."

Fractures on the surface of the skull suggest he may even have met his demise in a violent manner. It's not known how he came to lie in the cave, but it's possible he was placed there by others in his tribe.

The Natural History Museum researchers extracted the DNA from part of the skull near the ear known as the petrous. At first, project scientists Prof Ian Barnes and Dr Selina Brace weren't sure if they'd get any DNA at all from the remains.

But they were in luck: not only was DNA preserved, but Cheddar Man has since yielded the highest coverage (a measure of the sequencing accuracy) for a genome from this period of European prehistory - known as the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age.

They teamed up with researchers at University College London (UCL) to analyse the results, including gene variants associated with hair, eye and skin colour.

Extra mature Cheddar

They found the Stone Age Briton had dark hair - with a small probability that it was curlier than average - blue eyes and skin that was probably dark brown or black in tone.

This combination might appear striking to us today, but it was a common appearance in western Europe during this period.

Steven Clarke, director of the Channel Four documentary, said: "I think we all know we live in times where we are unusually preoccupied with skin pigmentation."

Prof Mark Thomas, a geneticist from UCL, said: "It becomes a part of our understanding, I think that would be a much, much better thing. I think it would be good if people lodge it in their heads, and it becomes a little part of their knowledge."

Cheddar Man's genome reveals he was closely related to other Mesolithic individuals - so-called Western Hunter-Gatherers - who have been analysed from Spain, Luxembourg and Hungary.

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