Cheddar Man is the oldest complete human skeleton ever to be found in the United Kingdom.
Cheddar Man is the oldest complete human skeleton ever to be found in the United Kingdom. Courtesy Channel 4

The bones of Cheddar Man, found in 1903 in a cave in Somerset, England, tell us an awful lot about this hunter-gatherer from many thousands of years ago. He was in his early 20s, slight and narrow-hipped, standing about five feet five inches tall. He was right-handed, and habitually cleaned his teeth with a twig. His last meal was something like reindeer or wild horse, animals that, like him, had made their way into Great Britain from Europe via Doggerland, an area of Europe that is now underwater. He died a grisly death.

Now, groundbreaking DNA analysis of Britain’s oldest complete skeleton has revealed something else: Cheddar Man had very dark brown to black skin, dark curly hair, and blue eyes. When we think about early Europeans, we often imagine them as light-skinned and fair-haired. In fact, the discovery suggests that the genes that give humans lighter skin and paler hair seem to have become widespread far later than originally thought—likely not until the arrival of farming, a few thousand years after Cheddar Man died.

Dutch paleo-artists Alfons and Adrie Kennis reconstructed Cheddar Man's face using a 3D-printer and hi-tech scanner.
Dutch paleo-artists Alfons and Adrie Kennis reconstructed Cheddar Man’s face using a 3D-printer and hi-tech scanner. Courtesy Channel 4

To reveal his face, scientists from the Natural History Museum sequenced his genome using DNA from his skull, in what a press release called “one of [the researchers’] most challenging human DNA projects to date.” Researchers Ian Barnes and Selina Brace drilled a two-millimeter hole into Cheddar Man’s skull and extracted a few milligrams of the powder for analysis. The DNA appears unusually well preserved after spending millennia deep in a cave, in a cool, stable condition. It offers a surprisingly clear genetic picture of this ancient Brit.

Next, Dutch paleo-artists Adrie and Alfons Kennis used a 3D-printer and hi-tech scanner to render his skull in full detail. Alfons cautioned that this reconstruction was not a perfect portrait, but rather a broad idea of how Cheddar Man might have looked. “What brings a lot of character to a person is the fullness of the lips, the shape of the nostrils, the shape of the tip of the nose, the folds of the eyes—and you can’t know this,” he told Britain’s Channel 4. He and Adrie had especially struggled with rendering the nose, Alfons said. “The most prominent thing in a face is the nasal area, and this area was mostly broken off, so for us the nose was the big question mark. What kind of nose would he have?”

Would everyone in Britain at that time have looked like Cheddar Man? Perhaps, said researcher Tom Booth, from Britain’s Natural History Museum, in London. “He is just one person, but also indicative of the population of Europe at the time,” Booth said in a statement. “They had dark skin and most of them had pale-colored eyes, either blue or green, and dark brown hair.” Today, dark skin and pale eyes are uncommon—but this hasn’t always been the case, Booth said. “He reminds us that you can’t make assumptions about what people looked like in the past based on what people look like in the present, and that the pairings of features we are used to seeing today aren’t something that’s fixed.”