The extraordinary story of our shared heritage

Extraordinary story shared heritage channel 4 First Brit
The Natural History Museum unveils the face of ‘Cheddar Man’, part of a Channel 4 documentary. The original skeleton of ‘Cheddar Man’.

The earliest British and Irish populations had dark skin and blue eyes, according to genetic experts

A new Channel 4 Documentary to be screened this Sunday at 8pm, First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man, followed pioneering research carried out by Natural History Museum Human Evolution and DNA specialists, University College London scientists and the world’s foremost prehistoric model makers, to reveal – with unprecedented accuracy – the striking and surprising face of ‘Cheddar Man’, Britain’s oldest nearly complete skeleton.

No individual in Britain or Ireland this old has ever had their genome sequenced.

The Natural History Museum’s ancient DNA Prof Ian Barnes and his colleague Dr Selina Brace have carried out the first ever full DNA analysis of Cheddar Man, possible only because of spectacular breakthroughs in DNA sequencing.

Prof Mark Thomas and Dr Yoan Diekmann at University College London analysed the sequences generated at the Natural History Museum to establish what Cheddar Man looked like. It was previously assumed that Europeans developed paler skin many thousands of years before Cheddar Man, so he was thought to have had reduced skin pigmentation and fair hair. The results however, indicate that whilst Cheddar Man had blue eyes, he also had dark coloured curly hair and ‘dark to black’ skin pigmentation. This means that the lighter pigmentation now considered to be a defining feature of northern Europe, is a far more recent phenomenon.

Cheddar Man’s genetic profile places him with several other Mesolithic-era Europeans whose DNA has already been analysed – individuals from Spain, Hungary and Luxembourg. These so-called “Western Hunter-Gatherer’s”, a group that includes Cheddar Man’s ancestors, migrated into Europe at the end of the last ice age.

Today, around 10 per cent of White British ancestry can be linked to that population.
Cannibals in Gough’s Cave

Dr Silvia Bello, along with the Natural History Museum’s Prof Chris Stringer, has spent the last ten years analysing the bones of the earlier inhabitants of the cave, which date back nearly 5,000 years before Cheddar Man. They have established that these early humans were cannibals.

These temporary visitors came during an ice–age thaw, but were driven out – like all previous humans in Britain – when temperatures dropped again. Prof Stringer and Dr Bello have identified the remains of six individuals: three adults, two adolescents and a young child, aged approximately 3 years old – have all sustained human butchery or chewing damage.

They have studied cups made from human skulls which suggest this cannibalistic behaviour was driven by a type of ritual rather than starvation.

The DNA profile of Cheddar Man has revealed that although they were found in the very same cave, he shares no direct ancestry with these earlier cannibals.

First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man will air on Channel 4 next Sunday 18 February.

Prof Chris Stringer, Research Leader in Human Origins at the Natural History Museum, first excavated at Gough’s Cave 30 years ago. He has been involved in studying material from the site ever since.

He said: “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! 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.”

Prof Ian Barnes, Research Leader in Ancient DNA at the Natural History Museum, led a team of Ancient DNA experts as they analysed the entire DNA of the fossil skeleton. He said:

“Cheddar Man is one of the oldest human specimens that we’ve worked with, and yet the preservation of DNA has been good enough to recover huge amounts of information about his appearance and ancestry. It’s been fantastic working with this excellent team, and getting to sample one of the most important human skeletons in the museum collection.”

Channel 4’s Commissioning Editor Rob Coldstream says, ‘Channel 4 is delighted to have been able to follow the incredible research of this extraordinary project. It is very exciting to think that we will be able to share these results and enable the rest of the UK to see what the first ‘Brit’ really looked like.’

This week, UK scientists confirmed that the first modern Briton had dark skin and blue eyes, following groundbreaking DNA analysis of the remains of a man who lived 10,000 years ago.

Known as Cheddar Man, after the area in southwest England where his skeleton was discovered in a cave in 1903, the ancient made had been brought to life through the first ever full DNA analysis of his remains.

The findings of the joint project between Britain’s Natural History Museum and University College London transformed the way people had previously seen Cheddar Man, who had been portrayed as having brown eyes and light skin in an earlier model.

Speaking on RTE Radio professor of population genetics at Trinity College Dublin, Dan Bradley said that a project with the National Museum of Ireland has made similar findings for that of the earliest Irish populations.

The researchers working on the Irish project have compiled data from two individuals from over 6,000 years ago that provide similar results as Cheddar Man.

“The earliest Irish would have been the same as Cheddar Man and would have had darker skin than we have today,” Bradley said.

He said their findings suggest the DNA is linked to individuals from Spain and Luxembourg, people who populated western European after the last Ice Age but before the farming era.

Similarly, Cheddar Man’s tribe migrated to Britain at the end of the last Ice Age and his DNA has been linked to individuals discovered in modern-day Spain, Hungary and Luxembourg.

“We think [the Irish examples] would be similar. The current, very light skin we have in Ireland now is at the endpoint of thousands of years of surviving in a climate where there’s very little sun,” Bradley said.

“It’s an adaptation to the need to synthesise vitamin D in skin. It has taken thousands of years for it to become like it is today.”

Bradley’s research suggests that there were about 30-40,000 people on the island of Ireland at the time that the dark skin genomes date back to.

“They came here very probably by boat. They ate a lot of fish, hunted wild boar, gathered plants and nuts,” he said.

Bradley said that the team of scientists at Trinity College Dublin hopes to have their research fully completed within the year.

A bust of Cheddar Man, complete with shoulder-length dark hair and short facial hair, has been created using 3D printing. It took close to three months to build the model, with its makers using a high-tech scanner which had been designed for the International Space Station.

Alfons Kennis, who made the bust with his brother Adrie, said the DNA findings were “revolutionary”.

“It’s a story all about migrations throughout history,” he told the Channel 4 in a documentary.

First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man will air on Channel 4 next Sunday 18 February.

Extraordinary story shared heritage channel 4 First Brit

 The history of ‘Cheddar Man’

A human male fossil skeleton, unearthed in 1903 in Gough’s Cave at Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, Cheddar Man has been the topic of constant mystery and intrigue. For over 100 years, scientists have tried to reveal Cheddar Man’s story, posing theories as to what he looked like, where he came from and what he can tell us about our earliest ancestors. Only now with world-leading research, cutting-edge DNA and facial reconstruction can we see for the first time the face of this 10,000 year old man, and ask how 300 generations later he relates to us today.

How the face was created

Working in the Natural History Museum’s ancient DNA lab, Prof Barnes and Dr Brace drilled a tiny hole, 2mm in diameter, into the ancient skull, allowing them to obtain a few milligrams of his bone powder for analysis. As the DNA was unusually well preserved, possibly due to the cool, stable conditions in the limestone cave, they were able to extract sufficient genetic information that could usefully inform the facial reconstruction.
To allow the model makers, Dutch identical twins, Adrie and Alfons Kennis to reconstruct Cheddar Man’s face using 3D printing, the Natural History Museum team also employed the use of a hi-tech scanner, originally designed for use on the International Space Station, to render his skull in full three-dimensional detail.

The brothers have created scores of reconstructions for the world’s top museums and were able to flesh out the skull based on the 3D scans from the Natural History Museum to create facial features based on the results of the scientific research.


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