Scientists at the Natural History Museum have used pioneering genetic sequencing and facial reconstruction techniques to prove that the first hunter-gatherers successfully to inhabit Britain were far darker in complexion than previously thought.
The groundbreaking discovery was made in a “stroke of luck” after archeologists found scraps of DNA in the ear of the Mesolithic “Cheddar Man”, the oldest complete skeleton ever found in the UK and one of the museum’s most treasured specimens. They then cross-referenced the genomes of modern inhabitants of Cheddar, near Gough’s Cave in the Cheddar Gorge where the remains were discovered in 1903, as well as other fossils from across Europe.
The results show, contrary to popular belief, that the founding generations of Britons owed more in appearance to Paleolithic Africans, from whom all humans descend.
Scientists said they show that commonly understood racial categories are historically only “recent constructions”.
Up to nine previous colonisations of Britain, via the now flooded European landbridge known as Doggerland, had been wiped out due to harsh temperatures.
But the roughly 12,000 humans in Britain at the time of Cheddar Man thrived and their DNA now comprises roughly 10 per cent of the genetic make-up of most white people currently living in the UK. They lived mainly in tents made from animal skins and preyed on animals like deer and boar using hunting dogs and bows and arrows.
Dr Yoan Dieckmann, from University College London, who took part in the project, said: “The historical perspective that you get just tells you that things change, things are in flux, and what may seem as a cemented truth that people who feel British should have white skin, through time is not at all something that is an immutable truth.
“It has always changed and will change.”
Establishing the genetic identity of Britain’s oldest skeleton enabled the team to find out whether it, and therefore we, were related to earlier fragments of bone thought to belong to cannibals.
However, no DNA link was found.
Archeologists already knew Cheddar Man was about five foot five inches tall, around 10 stone with good teeth and that he died in his early 20s.
But genetic sequencing that would have been impossible just ten years ago have now allowed them to determine the colour of its skin, eyes, and hair.
The information was passed to Dutch “Paleo-artists” Alfons and Adrie Kennis, make facial reconstructions of extinct mammals and early humans.
The results will be revealed the First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man airs on Channel 4 on Sunday February 18.
“The combination of quite dark skin and blue eyes is something that we don’t imagine is typical, but that was the real appearance of these people, something that’s quite rare today,” said Professor Chris Stringer, research leader in human origins at the Natural History Museum.