Science & Technology

The Earliest Humans in England Didn't Look the Way You'd Imagine

Picture what a person nicknamed "Cheddar man" might look like. Now do it again, knowing that Cheddar man is the oldest-known Homo sapiens ever discovered in England. Whether the person you pictured was wearing a cheesehead hat or a sort of Stone Age bowler hat, well, we can't verify the man's accessory choices. But we can verify his skin color. Here's what English people looked like 10,000 years ago.

Aged to Perfection

Cheddar man was originally discovered in 1903 by a construction team making improvements to Gough's Cave in Cheddar Gorge (no, he really has nothing to do with cheese). We've learned a lot about him in the past century. For one thing, we've pinpointed his age to 10,000 years, and we've been able to guess at his hunter-gatherer lifestyle. But a new genetic analysis has gone further than any previous investigation. Finally, we know exactly what he looked like. Behold:

Surprised? So were scientists. But the evidence was clear: the earliest residents of England did not have today's stereotypically pale skin. Cheddar man's genetic markers suggested that his skin pigmentation was closer to that of sub-Saharan Africa, pointing to the possibility that pale skin didn't arise until much later. Also, he almost certainly had blue eyes, putting an interesting wrinkle in our modern conceptions of which genetic traits go together. He's a great example of how easy it is to trip yourself up by projecting the present onto the past.

Foul Weather, Fair Skin

Anthropologists have long assumed that people in England had paler skin before the rest of the continent, but this new discovery has rendered that assumption false. Instead, Cheddar man and all of his relatives likely stayed dark-skinned about as long as the rest of Europe — until about 4,800 years ago. That might seem surprisingly recent (it means that for the majority of humanity's existence, there was literally no such thing as white people). But what caused that evolutionary change?

In the warm climates where humanity first evolved, dark skin was a handy way to reflect a substantial amount of sunlight and stave off cancer caused by UV radiation. But up north, where sunlight isn't as plentiful, reflecting that much light can lead to vitamin D deficiency. At the end of the day, though, Cheddar man stands as a reminder that the past isn't necessarily much like the present — and that race is a lot more complicated than where you come from.

To learn more about humanity's family tree, check out "Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo naledi and the Discovery That Changed Our Human Story" by Lee Berger and John Hawks. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

First-Known Briton Had Dark Skin, Blue Eyes

Written by Reuben Westmaas February 8, 2018