'He's one of us': modern neighbours welcome Cheddar Man

DNA tests suggesting man who lived 10,000 years ago had dark skin and blue eyes cause a stir

Rachel Andrews, who was tending the bar at the Black Dog Saloon, a wild west-themed cider pub at the foot of Cheddar Gorge, was not going to have a word said against the village’s most famous former resident.

“We’re very proud of Cheddar Man,” she said. “There’s a really good, strong community spirit around here. We all look after each other and he’s definitely one of us.”

It has been a big week for the people of Cheddar, a tucked-away corner of Somerset famed across the globe for its cheese, soaring cliffs and ancient caves.

Rachel Andrews
Rachel Andrews: ‘We’re very proud of Cheddar Man.’ Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

Like the rest of the world, the village had long believed that Cheddar Man, a human hunter-gatherer who lived here 10,000 years ago and whose bones were found in the gorge, had pale skin and fair hair. But DNA analysis suggests he actually had a very dark to black complexion, dark hair and blue eyes. “It doesn’t matter what he looked like,” said Andrews. “What’s colour got to do with it?”

It is no surprise that Andrews is clued-up about prehistory; after all, her history teacher at the village school, the Kings of Wessex academy, Adrian Targett, can boast a distant familial connection with Cheddar Man.

Twenty years ago, Targett and a group of pupils underwent tests to find out if there was a DNA link between modern residents and Cheddar Man. Targett was found to have a connection. “Cheddar Man and I share a common female ancestor,” explained Targett, 62, who is now retired from the school.

The revelation two decades ago turned Targett into a local celebrity. He took a week off school to do a round of media interviews, appeared on Richard and Judy’s sofa and said a tabloid offered him a handsome fee to pose in a leopardskin loincloth. “I said no. I’d have been remembered for the rest of my life as the man who got his kit off,” he said.

Instead, he is remembered as the history teacher who in 10,000 years was still to be found less than a mile from the cave his forebear had frequented. “I can live with that,” Targett said.

Like Cheddar Man, Targett has blue eyes and his skin is quite dark. “I’ve also got his nose and perhaps his hairline,” he said. Intriguingly, Targett revealed that two 14-year-old girls were also found to have links to Cheddar Man. But to protect them, they were not told.

The latest DNA tests suggest Cheddar Man’s ancestors left Africa, moved into the Middle East and headed west into Europe before crossing the ancient land bridge Doggerland connecting Britain to continental Europe.

Facial reconstruction of Cheddar Man, who lived 10,000 years ago and had dark brown skin and blue eyes.
A facial reconstruction of Cheddar Man, who lived 10,000 years ago and had dark brown skin and blue eyes. Photograph: Natural History Museum/EPA

Current students at the academy are excited and inspired by this idea.

“It’s incredible,” said Aiden Malik, 16. “The fact that he has the darker skin tone reminds us that we are all one race – the human race. That’s what’s most important. We should all respect one another.”

Malik and his friends reel off their diverse heritages: they have Pakistani, Irish, Greek Cypriot, Swedish, Sri Lankan, Guyanese, Indian and French roots.

“No one is pure British,” said Isaac McAndrew, 15. “With the rise of extremist groups, like EDL [the English Defence League], people are getting more scared of immigrants. These groups tell people: ‘You need to get out of the country because we were here first.’ That’s just factually wrong.”

Niah Vall agreed. “We’re all from different backgrounds. We call Somerset our home, but if they looked at our backgrounds, they’d find thousands of different ancestries.”

Paul Ballantyne with a replica of the prehistoric Briton in Gough’s Cave, Cheddar Gorge.
Paul Ballantyne with a replica of the prehistoric Briton in Gough’s Cave, Cheddar Gorge. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

Up at Gough’s Cave, where Cheddar Man was found more than a century ago, the operations manager, Leon Troake, said he was pleased the new research was helping humanise the Mesolithic Homo sapiens.

Like Andrews, Troake feels protective of Cheddar Man. “I think there’s a perception he would have been a primitive person. He wasn’t,” he said.

“Cheddar Man’s contemporaries would have hunted with a bow and arrow, fished with a harpoon and lit fires. They might have traded flints and had domesticated dogs. They also had to dodge cave bears and wolves.”

The models of Cheddar Man and his contemporaries at the Cheddar Museum of Prehistory are whiter than the latest tests suggest. Troake said they might have to be updated.

Paul Ballantyne, a former Kings of Wessex academy pupil who works as a rock sports manager at Cheddar, said he was taken not so much by the darkness of Cheddar Man’s skin, but the shape of his face.

“He’s not as rugged as I’d have thought. His face and jawline are quite slender,” he said.

The British Isles have been occupied by several different human species over the past one million years.

The earliest evidence of human occupation in Britain was found at Happisburgh, Norfolk. Stone tools and footprints discovered there have been dated as being about 900,000 years old. The people who made them may have been members of Homo antecessor, an early predecessor of the current Homo sapiens.

The oldest human fossils in Britain were found at Boxgrove, West Sussex. The find consists of two teeth and a piece of lower leg bone that had been gnawed by a large carnivore and which probably belonged to a species known as Homo heidelbergensis, another early forebear of Homo sapiens.

Neanderthal fossils thought to be around 400,000 years old have been found at Swanscombe, Kent. Later Neanderthal remains, dated at about 225,000 years old, have been uncovered at Pontnewydd, in south-east Wales.

Neanderthals became extinct about 40,000 years ago, and the first members of Homo sapiens are thought to have begun visiting Britain around this time. The first continuous occupation did not begin until around 11,000 years ago.

Around 8,000 years ago Britain became an island when the land bridge with Europe - Doggerland, now beneath the North Sea - was inundated, leaving those members of our species who were then visiting our shores as founders of the British people.

The first stone age farmers arrived 6,000 years ago and settled in growing numbers across the country. This period coincides with the construction of the first enclosures and henges, which culminated in the erection of giant stone rings and rows at sites such as Stonehenge, Avebury and Silbury in Wiltshire.

The Roman conquest of Britain, which began in 43AD under Emperor Claudius, is regarded by convention as the point when prehistoric Britain came to an end.

Ted Williams, a rock sports instructor, said he was surprised he and Ballantyne had more facial hair than Cheddar Man.

But it is not only in Cheddar that the revelations have caused a stir. The story has been carried across the world, and in Australia, a CEO called Craig Dent has followed developments with particular interest.

He too has a DNA link with Cheddar Man via his maternal ancestors, and five years ago visited Gough’s Cave with Adrian Targett.

Looking at the most recent image has stirred a mix of emotions. “So much intrigue surrounds his life and early, possibly violent, death; if only he could reveal what really happened,” said Dent, who has has dark hair, dark eyes and a “fair to olive” complexion.

“I can’t say there is much resemblance, although you can’t help but feel a connection.”


Steven Morris

The GuardianTramp

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