Cheddar Man and British prehistory

Back in 1903, some people digging a drainage trench in Gough’s Cave, in the Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, found a skeleton. In case Cheddar Gorge and Somerset don’t help you locate the cave on the map of your mind, it’s two or three hours’ drive from where I live. That’s fairly useless information but I’m hopiong it’ll create the illusion of a reference point.

The skeleton turned out to be 10,000 years old and is now known as Cheddar Man. Ched (as he won’t mind being called since (a) he’s dead; (b) whatever he spoke wasn’t English and (c) writing hadn’t been invented yet and neither had computers, so he wouldn’t have read this in any case) was around 5’5″ and would’ve weight 10 stone.

A stone? That’s a particularly insane measure of weight that the British abandoned when they (mostly) went metric, but–no, don’t ask me why–a recent newspaper article about the find gave his weight in stones, probably because they were still using it when Ched’s weight was first calculated.

A stone is 14 pounds. I’ll leave you to multiply 10 by 14. I don’t do higher mathematics.

Why didn’t the writer translate stones into kilowhatsits since Britain’s now (mostly) metric?Because. And if that isn’t a good enough reason, make up one of your own.

But before we go on, let’s be completely accurate: When it was found, the skeleton must have been 10,000 minus 105 years old, because in 2018 the headlines are still saying the skeleton’s 10,000 years old. I’m terrible with numbers, but I do understand that 10,000 minus 105 isn’t 10,000.

One article figures that works out to 300 generations ago.

The reason Ched’s back in the news is that up-to-date DNA sequencing has revealed—drumroll, please—that he had very dark skin, blue eyes, and curly brown (or in some articles, black) hair. And as an adult, he wouldn’t have been able to drink milk. I’m guessing that measn he was lactose intolerant, like much of the world’s non-European people and some smallish portion of people of European descent, including me, but the articles I’ve read don’t go into detail on that.

What’s more, they don’t say word one about me. It’s a mystery.

How dark was Ched’s skin? His DNA says it was either dark brown or black, but when I googled him, the featured photos from three different websites showed skin tones that ranged from toasted white bread with a sunburn to seriously dark. Which is interesting, since all three photos are of the same reconstruction.

Photoshop, pre-existing beliefs, and politics lead us to strange results. The darkest photo is the best match for the description, so I’m going to put my trust in that one.

I don’t know if all three photos will still be featured, but you’re welcome to roll the dice by clicking on this link.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. Primroses. If it ever stops raining, we may get these planted. In the meantime, they live on the kitchen counter, which I’ve cleverly hidden by moving the lens in on top of the blossoms. Don’t they look outdoorsy?

Ched wasn’t one of Britain’s first settlers. Early Britain was repeatedly settled and then repeatedly emptied out when glaciers expanded and sent people running for friendlier climates. Today’s residents understand the impulse, although we’re short on glacierless just now.

Neanderthals and pre-Neanderthals settled in Britain at various points, the pre- people being forced south by an ice ago more than 200,000 years ago and the Neanderthals arriving (if I’m reading this correctly; it all gets a little hazy back there because no one was assigned to take notes, which was unforgivably careless) some 100,000 years ago. According to Francis Pryor (I’ll get around to explaining him in a bit), the earliest evidence of human occupation in Britain has recently been redated to roughly a million years ago.

Modern humans, as opposed to Neanderthals and pre-Neanderthals, also settled several times and got chased out by ice ages. Britain wasn’t an island during most of that period, so migration would have been relatively simple. When sea levels were low, it was joined to Europe by a land bridge, now called Doggerland and named after the Dogger Bank, which was in turn named after seventeenth century Dutch fishing boats called Doggers. I stopped following the thread at that point. From time to time, even I notice when I’ve gone too far off topic.

Cheddar Man (who was male, unlike some of the prehistoric “men” named in less discriminating days) is from the group of people who put down roots after the last ice age. In case it helps, we’re talking about the Mesolithic period–the middle stone age. His people came from the Middle East (which wasn’t called the Middle East then, but never mind) through Europe (which wasn’t yet Europe) before coming to Britain (which—never mind, you already know this). They would’ve been hunter-gatherers and weren’t genetically related to Britain’s earlier modern human settlers—the ones who cleared out when the glaciers moved in.

You can think of it as a very early exercise in gentrification and urban clearance if that clarifies anything, although some obvious differences do stand out. The absence of bulldozers, for one. And of urban planning.

Because Ched’s people—let’s call them the Cheddar people; no one else does, but it’s easier—timed their arrival well. No glaciers drove them out. As the climate warmed and sea levels rose, they found themselves on an island. Leaving became more difficult than staying, so they and became the ancestors of Britain’s indigenous white population. A history teacher from the area was tested and turns out to have a female ancestor in common with Ched. Think about that: Ten thousand years later, a descendant’s still in the old neighborhood. That’s a family that stays in one place long enough to have to clean the oven. I was well into my thirties before I did that.

The average Briton carries ten percent of the Cheddar people’s genes. Or possibly the average white Briton. Or the average person who’s at least partially white British. Don’t push your luck by asking me to get this one right. I read four or five articles before I understood that they weren’t saying ten percent of the population was related to them.

The articles I’ve read draw two conclusions from the discovery about Ched’s skin color–and it’s because of his skin color that Ched’s making the headlines:

  1. “It really shows up that these imaginary racial categories that we have are…very modern constructions…that really are not applicable to the past at all.” Tom Booth, archeologist from the Natural History Museum.
  2. Pale skin developed in Europeans later than was previously thought, possibly because the introduction of farming meant that people’s diets were short of vitamin D, creating an evolutionary advantage for lighter skin, which absorbs vitamin D from sunlight more easily.

BBC article suggests that light skin was introduced by a later wave of immigration–the Middle Eastern people who brought farming with them. An earlier theory was that farming spread as an idea; the newer theory is that it spread with people migrating, bringing their knowledge with them.

And the blue eyes? If they had any evolutionary advantage, no one seems to have figured out what it was. It may simply be a glitch that entered the human population and survived.

So how did the Cheddar people live?

Britain’s climate wouldn’t have been very different from today’s. Siberia it wasn’t. Much of the land would’ve been wooded, mostly with birch and pine. And when the first settlers arrived, it would’ve been uninhabited.

I try to imagine that and can’t help thinking hearing scary music. I’ve seen too many movies.

In his book Home: A time traveller’s tales from Britain’s prehistory, Francis Pryor makes a convincing argument that the early hunter-gatherers led a more settled and more sophisticated life than earlier generations of archeologists thougth. Rather than being the kind of nomads who put down no roots, they would have returned to their settlements year after year. They may have been migratory, but they followed seasonal patterns.

They would’ve made and used stone tools. (The age of metal  takes up only 0.01% of human history.) But being stone age people doesn’t mean they lived in caves, clobbered each other on the head with wooden clubs, and grunted. These were modern humans: us minus the technology. Pryor writes, “We have good evidence that early post-Glacial families had warm, thatch- or hide-roofed houses, the earliest of which (8500 B.C.) was discovered very recently, at Star Carr, in North Yorkshire.”

They had domesticated dogs. They used bows and arrows.

The first known farmers lived in Ched’s time but not in Britain. They were in what’s now the Middle East. According to Pryor, farming didn’t reach Britain until around 4000 B.C. The BBC dates that to 5000 to 4500 B.C., and even I, with my phobia about numbers, notice that the dates don’t match. Can we just say farming took a long time to get this far north? Clocks hadn’t been invented. Calendars hadn’t been invented. Hell, writing hadn’t been invented. So let’s cut everyone some slack if their dates don’t match perfectly.

Besides, the change from hunter-gathering to farming didn’t happen quickly. Even Pryor, who argues for a relatively quick transition, says it would’ve taken a couple of centuries.

Once people began to depend on farming, life changed relatively quickly. Farming could support a larger population than hunter-gathering. It led to a division of labor, densely settled communities, impressive monuments, land ownership, relatively rappid technological change, writing, and all the wondrous stuff we were told about at school. It also led to new diseases (caused by those dense settlement patterns), a more restricted diet, wars over territory, and a shitload of hard work for the people on the bottom of the social structure. One of the things about the division of labor is that it’s not just about you making arrows and me making fish hooks because that’s what we’re good at. At some point it also means someone comes along and says, “You do the heavy lifting and I’ll sit around and think profound thoughts.” Or make art. Or protect us from the angry gods. Or tell you what work needs to be done today.

Farming also turned out to be harder work than hunter-gathering. Hunter gatherers put in a much shorter working day than early farmers—and probably than most of us do today. According to one theory (and if I ever knew whose it is, I don’t remember), we should envy them.

So that was Cheddar Man. He had good teeth, indicating a healthy diet. He probably died in his early twenties, but it doesn’t sound like he lived a bad life.


And from there, I just have to take you to modern-day New York City. A friend spotted this in a New York Times article about how a serious snow storm affected the city: “The shelves of some New York City grocery stores quickly emptied of milk, eggs and kale as New Yorkers stocked up for the storm…”


I’d give you a link to prove I didn’t make that up, but as an old friend used to say, I can’t be arsed.

104 thoughts on “Cheddar Man and British prehistory

  1. Nice! I like how you did this. And kale – sigh.
    Hope you won’t mind but a little extra info for you.
    The prof – my husband – wrote ‘In Search of Cheddar Man’ which was published in 1999 after the first round of DNA testing on the old man. We lived in Bristol then and he was at Bristol Uni and did some research on rock art pigments using the walls of Cheddar Caves (and also appeared in a very muddy Time Team – his overalls had a hole in them he didn’t know about till it was too late – anyway, the least said about that episode the better). The first reconstruction featured a clay head which looked very… brown. This link (hope it works, it’s a Google drive link) is to a piece the prof did for BBC News (wrong title – he’s ‘just’ African Archaeology not Classics and Egyptology) and he shows the original illustration towards the end.
    As for lifestyle, the Mirror did a piece on that with him and ‘some’ of what he actually said is reported here.
    But you’ve probably already read/seen all you want, so feel free to ignore them both!
    I always get more ‘likes’ for posts about his work than ANYTHING I do./Now, why do I write as ‘Husk’ you may wonder… :-)

    Liked by 7 people

  2. Loved your amusing run (and skip) through prehistory. And it was well-researched – you know it was. Love the idea that Ched may not match a someone’s idea of racial stereotypes, which hopefully challenges the idea of racial stereotypes mattering very much, which hopefully helps with the realisation that everyone matters, even Jeremy Corbyn.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I read an article about this rediscovery, but your post is actually much more informative. I’ll just leave that with you. I have to say, I went off the rails on this post. It started when I read “kilowhatsits” I can’t stop laughing. Systems of measurement are almost as screwed up as our fascination with race. Due to that fascination, and the brown skin / black skin references, I started wondering if Francis Pryor is related to Richard Pryor. Probably not, but of course Richard Pryor could make history and pre-history more interesting.

    I also was wondering about the whole pre-history which I assume is the history of pre-people which I assume is something I can’t understand. Anyway, the biggest turn off the rails leads me to a question about England, and since that’s what you’re here for (isn’t it) – do they eat Cheetos in England? Reading about Cheddar Man, I can’t help think about Cheetos and how good they are and how awful it would be to live in a land without them.

    Thanks for the information and the laughs. I think you have damaged my productivity, but it’s Friday and how much work was I going to do anyway?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Dan, what would I do without you? You made me realize that I’ve lived in Britain for eleven years without even knowing if they eat Cheetos here. Talk about living in ignorance. So I rushed to open another window and typed in “Cheetos.” And since Lord Google knows that I’m only interested in the U.K. (unless I actually am, in which case he’s happy to send me U.S. URLs [Lord G., I’d like to talk to you about that tablecloth…]). Where was I? I found several Cheeto offers from companies that sell American food and none from your garden variety supermarket, so I think that’s a no. Also a claim that EU law has banned Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, which may not be true–Boris Johnson made his reputation by inventing, and yes, publishing, news stories about things the EU had banned, like bendy bananas.

      It could also, of course, be real. Who knows what’s in those things?

      Anyway, I do seem to be living in a Cheetoless nation. But life is possible without them. It was also possible before them. Cheddar Man never so much as heard of them.

      I’ll never hear about pre-history again without realizing that it’s the story of pre-people. Thank you for enriching my life.

      Liked by 2 people

      • In the UK we have Wotsits, in particular, Cheesy Wotsits. These are I think, like Cheetos. They were originally produced by a now-defunct crisp (US: “potato chip”) manufacturing company called Golden Wonder. Walkers Crisps bought the 32-year-old Wotsits brand from Golden Wonder in May 2002. Walkers is a PepsiCo company, and, as I understand it, Cheetos are made by Frito-Lay, which is a subsidiary of PepsiCo too. So there is a connection between Cheetos and Wotsits. Chapter and verse on Wikpedia:

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Good post! I’ve seen pictures of ole Ched, and I was fascinated by his dark skin. On the radio, long ago, I heard a young African-American woman say, “Race is a fiction, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.” So true! Sometimes, we are such an idiotic species.Skin color shouldn’t make any difference at all. Alas, it does.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. It’s a strange hangover from the “Imperial” weights and measures that we use stones and ounces for peoples’ weights and not much else. Older people use it for food. I haven’t got a clue when someone on an American TV programme say someone is 100 pounds or 200 pounds which turns out (after quick use of my calculator) translates as seriously skinny or seriously overweight or a heavyweight boxer, depending on how fit and toned they are! I didn’t notice how “Ched” had differing skin tone in different photos. I was more concerned by the fact I though he looked like a middle-aged woman rather than a 20-year old man!

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Myself and my partner have a theory that the eyes were pale rather than blue, so could of been green, which makes sense if you think about it (2 brown eyed people can make a green eyed baby.) Also I had a lot of fun going on to the daily mail facebook page and watching the reader’s head exploding over this news

    Liked by 3 people

  7. A stone? That’s a particularly insane measure of weight that the British abandoned when they (mostly) went metric
    We haven’t really abandoned it. We nod solemnly when the doctor scolds us about putting on an extra kilogram. Then when we leave the surgery we’re trying to work out what that is in pounds and ounces.

    it all gets a little hazy back there because no one was assigned to take notes, which was unforgivably careless)
    Very Wodehouse!

    What with Ched, and the Ancestry ads about how us Brits are 60% mainland European anyway, you’d think the Brexiteers would be slightly sheepish. But I doubt it.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I doubt it too.

      Let me tell you a tale about pounds and stones and kilos: When I had my second surgery, the anesthetist asked me my weight, which I gave her in pounds, because (a) it’s what my scale’s set to, (b) it’s what I understand, and (c) it’s all I can remember anyway. She asked for it in kilos or stones, which I couldn’t give her. I could tell her that a kilo is 2.2 pounds but I’m too hopeless with numbers to do anything with that knowledge. She must’ve gotten the calculation right, because I both went to sleep and woke up. Afterwards, it crossed my mind that I should probably have been nervous about that.

      Why they ask instead of weighing people themselves I don’t know. Especially since people generally lie about their weight.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Did you have an epidural? For that, rather than the type where going under (and coming out) depends on the blood concentration achieved, maybe it’s not such an issue. (Here I am talking as if I know: I’m just making layman assumptions, but it seems reasonable.)

        I can’t do mental arithmetic standing up. If she was standing I’d have been worried. (Not as bad as a calculator though, it’s not as if a mis-key is uncommon. Human error, it’ll kill us all one day!)

        Liked by 1 person

        • No. My weight seemed–and I have only my impression to go on, because I didn’t ask–to matter for the amount of anesthetic I was given intravenously. She was standing, but I’m guessing that most people’s ability to do arithmetic stays the same whether they’re sitting or standing. Mine does: I’m hopeless in either position. Or lying down or standing on my head.

          You’re right about human error, but only if all the clever mechanisms we build don’t get us first.

          Liked by 1 person

              • Never mind that. Good God, woman, you use ‘no end’ correctly! Rather than ‘to no end’ used to indicate ‘a lot’, instead of ‘to no purpose’! You just proved time-travel secretly exists, because not a body understands that distinction any longer, not on the whole damn internet. You are a holdout from a former era of culture and education and I claim my five pounds. (Worth about eight grand in today’s money.)

                You made my day! Don’t worry, someone’ll come along and misuse ‘literally’, and point proudly at the OED to justify it, in a minute.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Well, I’m almost as old as Ol’ Ched, so it’s not quite time travel. I literally come from a time when literally meant literally. And I worked as an editor and copy editor, so–well, yeah. I was a professional grammar nerd.

                Oddly enough, though, I find myself on both sides of the grammar wars. Language changes, and that’s where so much of the life in it comes from, that constant renewal. I can–and with provocation will–argue both sides passionately.

                Anyway, glad I made you happy. Who were you going to claim that eight grand from?

                Liked by 1 person

              • Oh, I completely see the ‘living language’ argument. Really I’m completely inconsistent and just have aesthetic objections to certain misuses and instances. Perhaps it’s the ‘know the rules before you break them’ thing – the feeling that folks have no idea of the history or current iteration of the word or phrase they’re cocking up, and indeed will sometimes passionately argue for their mangled version and correct you on it, e.g. for a spelling of ‘definitely’ than contains an ‘a’. Or ‘pacifically’ versus ‘specifically.

                I’ll claim it anywhere I can get it! (Checks lottery jackpot for this week. Blimmin’ heck, seventy mil?!)

                Liked by 1 person

              • Understood. And except for knowing the rules before you break them, agreed. Some of the best changes come from people who are playing by another rule book. Sorry–no examples spring to mind. I’ll just sneak out the door quietly and pretend I proved my case.

                The dividing line for me is whether the change is any good–whether it has some life in it–instead of just mangling the old word or phrase. Although some of the manglings will stay with us, no matter how much you and I complain and preach. Words change their meanings regularly. “Nice” once meant fussy and has meant any number of other things along its way to the meaning we recognize today, and I’m sure each change offended any number of people who prized the older meaning.

                It’s a pity more people don’t get addicted to the history of words. Let me know if you win that lottery. You owe me a cup of tea if you do.

                Liked by 1 person

              • That’s a very modest share of a lottery win! (Unless the win is five quid.) I wonder if I could hold the fambly to that proportion of seventy mil?

                Ehhh, I’m all for punk rock and DIY, respect for unearned authority is a character defect imo. I think maybe I have once too often been ‘corrected’ by someone who was talking out of their arse and didn’t even know it. That’s the thing. Do it your own way, do it the way you love, be free, create. But be pretty damn sure you’ve got your facts straight, before you start lecturing somebody else.

                Liked by 1 person

              • If the cup of tea’s over-modest, we can add cake. A little cake never hurt–well, most people. I doubt your family, or anyone else’s, will be quite that minimalist.

                And I think we’ve finally discussed this enough that we agree completely: Don’t lecture anyone else till you get your facts straight. And (I’d add) possibly not then either, because a person can be right and still be an asshole.

                Liked by 1 person

  8. I thought it was fascinating to see the reconstruction of the face with the DNA component. I always like those reconstructed faces anyway and find them compelling and eerie in equal measure. However, the ability to know things like skin tone and hair colour is really pretty cool. I am a family history nerd (I have been researching for 25 years) and my husband bought me a DNA test for my birthday. The results really didn’t include any surprises in terms of my origins but it has been fascinating to be able to use my DNA to find people I am distantly related to. DNA is a fascinating tool. But I digress. Thanks for covering the whole vitamin deficiency thing regarding the darker skin tone as that was the first thing that popped into my head. How would your skeleton not just crumble from rickets in all that grey, dull British light? I am glad you saved me a google by providing the answer.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I’m not a scientist, but it seems odd to me to say that there was a lot of migration going on at the time, and then to say that this one man was representative of everyone else in what’s now mainland England. That might not be what they’re saying, because I’m interested in more recent history, but it does seem to be the conclusion that’s been drawn.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Good point. He’s the one representative we have, though, and it does seem tempting to generalize. I think what can be said is that he would’ve been part of a tribe–presumably of genetically similar individuals. And that (if the history of other places is at all relevant) the tribe would’ve been part of a network of genetically similar tribes. If I remember my research correctly (an my memory’s more unreliable than anyone’s most unreliable narrator, so build in some room for error here), a skeleton from roughly the same period has been found in Spain, or therabouts, and he or she would’ve had roughly the same skin color, although I don’t remember eye color being mentioned. So we have two out of two, in widely separated area.

      Liked by 3 people

  10. KALE? That comes as a blow, Ellen. It’s final proof that New York has gone to the dogs, I mean to the WASPS. Everyone in town knows that there are three food items and one beverage that you rush to the corner store for. Stock up on these and you can make it through any natural catastrophe: piroshskis, pumpernickel rye, fresh, unsalted butter, and root beer in glass bottles.

    Those few who had to have kale didn’t make pests of themselves in the grocery lines of Brooklyn. They ate their kale and ..kidney beans at home in Connecticut.
    I mean, that’s what Westchester and commuter trains are FOR.
    Thanks for your post. Now, that was some interesting and cool information

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your list of what you rush to the store for reminds me of a story about pickled herring, but it only works in person–on the page it’ll die. If we ever meet, I owe you a story about pickled herring. In the meantime, all I can say is that our hometown–or at least big damn chunks of it–has changed.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I’ve discovered this a little late. Yes, interesting, informative and entertaining – as, indeed are the many and varied comments. I assume they will be published in a separate volume for the Christmas market. There’s just one tiny little point I picked up on the way through. We’re supposed to CLEAN ovens?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Only when the fumes they give off are strong enough that you run out of the house coughing and screaming. At that point, you need a pneumatic drill–you know, the kind they use on the roads–and a bit of scouring powder. Until that point, though, don’t worry about a thing. Cheddar Man never cleaned an oven in his life. Of course, he probably didn’t have the internet either.

      The comments are great, aren’t they? I can only wish I could convince someone about a volume for the Christmas market.


  12. One thing I find interesting is when they say the farmers came from the “Middle East”, which country or countries specifically are they talking about? The definition of “Middle East” has changed to include what used to be called the “Near East” and is still in flux, some even trying to include Egypt.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You raise an interesting question, and I don’t know that it’s answerable. The countries, of course, didn’t exist yet, so whatever borders existed–. Hmm. I just caught myself being about to say they were fluid. They may not have been. Farmers–people whose lives fixed them in one place–may well have been hostile to people wanting to cross their territory. At the least, though, borders were different than what we think of as borders. And people who trecked from the Middle East (however it’s defined) through Europe to Britain were nomadic–not in the sense of traveling between fixed places during the year but in the sense of, for whatever reasons, moving onward, either following somethng or fleeing something else. How long did that take them? Was it measured in years or in generations? At what point do we say their journey started?

      I know it’s possible to pinpoint the region an individual grew up in from mineral (I believe) traces in their bones, but I’m not sure how much that helps in this case. How many skeletons do the anthropologists have to work with? And again, how long was the journey?


  13. Pingback: Cheddar Man and British prehistory — Notes from the U.K. – Coffee Break Archaeology

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