There's something about the ability to see history in three dimensions that really makes it come alive. This is probably why 3D re-creations of some of history's most significant figures captive museum goers and internet users alike. One particular recreation has particularly captured the public interest, and its name is Cheddar Man. Discovered in a cave in Cheddar, Somerset – the so-called Cheddar Man cave – in the southwest of England, the skeleton is 10,000 years old. It's also the oldest complete skeleton of a proto-Brit.
But what did Cheddar Man look like? Thanks to testing done by ancient DNA geneticists, a Cheddar Man reconstruction shows that he probably had dark skin, curly hair, and blue eyes, rather than the pale phenotype that many people expected him to have. This reconstruction has caused quite a stir and a flurry of internet reactions and think pieces. Cheddar Man's appearance suggests that the history of the British Isles isn't as "white" as some people thought.
The Cheddar Man skeleton was discovered in 1903. For decades since, many people assumed he had been a man with pale skin because many phenotypically white Britons descended from Cheddar Man's population.
In fact, though, DNA reconstruction shows that his phenotype manifested itself as dark skin, curly hair, and blue eyes. In order to obtain the DNA, scientists had to drill a two-millimeter hole into Cheddar Man's skull. They analyzed the resultant "bone powder" and reconstructed his genome, which revealed Middle Eastern origins. His ancestors arrived in Britain not long after the last ice age, traveling through the Middle East from Africa.
Despite his moniker, Cheddar Man was probably lactose intolerant. Bioarchaeologist Tom Booth said, “Cheddar Man existed before farming had spread to Britain. By looking, we can tell he would have been unable to digest raw milk."
Similarly, his digestive system likely wouldn't have been able to process alcohol.
When the ice age ended 14,700 years ago, settlers moved into Britain much quicker than previously thought – and apparently survived the still-cold winters with the help of human flesh.
New technology showed the human remains in Cheddar Gorge are all concentrated around the end of the Ice Age, and marks on the bones indicate they were stripped of meat and flesh in the same way animals were. Moreover, the bones were disposed of in a pit, just like animal bones. It's unclear whether this was some sort of ritualistic cannibalism, if early settlers were openly killing other humans to survive, or if they were just seizing the opportunity for a meal when someone passed on. Regardless of reason, the cave dwellers thoroughly cleaned bones, using the skulls as bowls or cups.
Perhaps the most important part of this discovery was that the Ice Age ended abruptly. When the world heated up, it did so quickly, and early humans didn't waste any time getting into what is now Somerset and Cheddar Gorge. However, temperatures plunged again for a few thousand years, and it wasn't until about 11,500 years ago that the trend permanently ended, allowing settlers to move in for the last time. The Cheddar Man was likely in this final wave of settlers, bearing no relation to the cannibals who lived in the cave prior.
Cheddar Man is the oldest complete skeleton to ever be found in Britain, coming in at a whopping 10,000 years old. His ancestors started migrating from the Middle East about 12,000 years ago. They were hunter-gatherers who moved west after the end of the last Ice Age, hopping the Channel from Europe into what we today recognize as the United Kingdom.