In Brief

Cheddar Man: earliest Britons had dark skin and blue eyes

New research challenges assumptions around British ethnic identity

DNA extracted from the 10,000-year-old skeleton known as Cheddar Man indicates that early Britons typically had blue or green eyes, with dark curly hair and dark skin pigmentation more usually associated with sub-Saharan Africa.

Experts from University College London (UCL) and the Natural History Museum built a portrait of life in Mesolithic Britain, around 300 generations ago, using DNA from Britain’s oldest complete skeleton, which was discovered in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, in 1903. 

“He is just one person, but also indicative of the population of Europe at the time,” says Dr Tom Booth,  an archaeologist at the museum who worked on the project. “They had dark skin and most of them had pale-coloured eyes, either blue or green, and dark brown hair.”

The analysis offers new insight into the first people to resettle Britain after the last Ice Age, says BBC science editor Paul Rincon.

Until recently, it was assumed that humans adapted to have paler skin shortly after entering Europe about 45,000 years ago. 

The “groundbreaking discovery was made in a ‘stroke of luck’”, when archaeologists found scraps of DNA in Cheddar Man’s inner ear bone, The Daily Telegraph reports.

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