First Modern Britons Had Dark Skin, Blue Eyes

Posted: Feb 10 2018, 7:05am CST | by , in News | Latest Science News

 
First Modern Britons had Dark Skin, Blue Eyes
Credit: Tom Barnes/Channel 4

DNA analysis of Cheddar Man reveals that earliest modern humans in Britain look quite different from what we might expect

A detailed DNA analysis of a 10,000-year old skeleton shows that early Britons had blue eyes, dark curly hairs and dark skin color. The findings might come as a surprise to many as today's Brits are characterized by their pale skin and fair hair.

The skeleton, known as Cheddar Man, was discovered in a cave at Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, in 1903 and is the oldest complete human skeleton yet found in Britain. His genetic analysis could provide valuable insight into first modern humans who settled in Britain.

“He is just one person, but also indicative of the population of Europe at the time,” said Dr Tom Booth from Natural History Museum. They had dark skin and most of them had pale colored eyes, either blue or green, and dark brown hair. Cheddar Man subverts people's expectations of what kinds of genetic traits go together.”

Modern humans migrated to Britain around 45,000 years ago and it had been assumed that they adapted pale skin color shortly after that. But genetic analysis suggests otherwise. Researchers say that lighter pigmentation in modern Britons is a far more recent phenomenon.

“It seems that pale eyes entered Europe long before pale skin or blond hair, which didn't come along until after the arrival of farming,” said Tom Booth.

“He reminds us that you can't make assumptions about what people looked like in the past based on what people look like in the present, and that the pairings of features we are used to seeing today aren't something that's fixed.”

Cheddar Man belonged to a group of people who were Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. He was about 5.4 feet tall and died in his twenties. For years, scientists have tried to reveal his story and proposed theories as to what he looked like and where he came from. But it was only recently that they were able to analyze its DNA and describe his physical features.

To collect bone powder for analysis, researchers drilled a tiny, 2mm wide hole into the ancient skull. Since the DNA was well-preserved possibly due to the cool, stable conditions in the limestone cave, researchers manage to extract sufficient genetic information to reconstruct face, as well as other genetic characteristics.

Ancient man's DNA proves he is genetically similar to several other dark-skinned Europeans from the Mesolithic era like Spain, Hungary, and Luxemborg whose DNA has already been analyzed.

'We had a lot of genetic data but you have to kind of know what you're looking for," said Tom. "I had taken a recreational DNA test that looked specifically at physical traits, and they had helpfully listed the markers they use to come up with their assessments. We were able to send that list of markers to our own bioinformatics lab to help us develop a portrait of Cheddar Man."

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