Cheddar Man – Who was he?

Cheddar Man. Maybe a bit of a shocker for some and surprising for others. Either way a fabulous use of the Dinky Amigos as a window on an ancient world.

Obviously we are not talking about a huge human sized piece of cheese with male features. Instead the Natural History Museum revealed the probable features of an ancient Briton this week. The skeleton of this ancient Briton is approximately 10,000 years old. It was discovered over 100 years ago in Cheddar Gorge, UK and, luckily for us, not thrown away with some of other things found with it.  Cheddar Man represents one of the earliest known Britons. So – has anything much changed over the past 10 millenia?

Humans both then and now are from a single species only. Homo sapiens.  Some hairy looking chaps and their families colonised mainland Britain about 45,000 years ago. Then the last ice age struck making it rather too chilly to remain. Long term holidays to warmer climes became extremely popular and the population dwindled away.

Round about 11,500 years ago the sun got the better of the ice, which receded in a huff. Life was once again possible in Britain and a new wave of settlers came across from Continental Europe. It is thought that Cheddar Man is descended from these new settlers. We are descended from him. Same species. Same skeleton. Same location.

But the fashion, it seems, is not the same. Modern Britons tend to pair pale skin with blue or brown eyes. Cheddar Man sported darker skin, dark hair and blue eyes. Not a combo that has become popular (there are a few followers in the African American community but not many).

So he looked a bit different.

But why and how did we know?

Hidden inside the ear of this skeleton, in the densest of dense bones, was the DNA of this man. Dense bones afford protection to delicate Dinky Amigos sequences. Cool cave conditions slow down degradation of them. The DNA was preserved well enough to investigate some of the individual Dinky Amigos that make it up. Part of that investigation involved analysis of external visual characteristics – in this case his facial features.

In the next post we will look at how scientists extracted this DNA and used it to obtain their information.