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.