Cheddar Man: A European Mesolithic Male with Blue Eyes and Brown Skin

I saw these headers go by earlier this spring, but didn’t really have time to really dive into it until now. Well, better late than never, as they wisely say. 🙂

Despite the name, the Cheddar Man isn’t some silly cheese ad bloke. Instead, he has opened doors to very intriguing discoveries about European population during the later Stone Age.

The remains of an anatomically modern human male from about 10,000 years ago were found near Bristol in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England in 1903. Recent DNA analysis of the skeleton—Britain’s oldest (almost) complete one—suggests that he had blue eyes, dark curly or wavy hair, and dark brown to black skin.

Natural History Museum Tom Barnes Cheddar Man Bust Closeup

They also found that the Cheddar Man belonged to the same population as Mesolithic individuals whose bones were recovered from Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary, usually referred to as western European Mesolithic hunter-gatherers or European early modern humans.

Hannah Devlin at The Guardian writes most aptly:

“The discovery shows that the genes for lighter skin became widespread in European populations far later than originally thought – and that skin colour was not always a proxy for geographic origin in the way it is often seen to be today.

“Tom Booth, an archaeologist at the Natural History Museum who worked on the project, said: ‘It really shows up that these imaginary racial categories that we have are really very modern constructions, or very recent constructions, that really are not applicable to the past at all.’”

A new bust model of Cheddar Man was made by Kennis & Kennis Reconstructions. (See a photo of the previous model made by a team at the University of Manchester here.) They took measurements of the skeleton, scanned the skull, and 3D printed a base for their model. Then they applied certain conventions to shape the face.

I fully confess I’m having a hard time keeping track of the exact timespans and geographical limits of the various Stone Age eras in Eurasia and Africa—what’s paleolithic, mesolithic, or neolithic and where and at what time. But it is so fascinating (and delightful!) that we continue to develop new methods of finding more about our past, and that so many different disciplines seek to understand where we came from and what makes us tick.

Image: closeup of the model of Cheddar Man by Tom Barnes / Channel 4 via Natural History Museum, London


35 Isn’t Old and Everyone’s a Royal

150703FamilyI suppose that title’s a little more interesting than “Pre-modern Demography.”

You’ve probably heard the statistic that the average lifespan in the European middle ages was 35. I remember learning that when I was young. Most of my students have heard it, too, and just like I used to, they imagine that it means that when medieval people got to thirty-two or thirty-three it was time to start looking around for a cemetery plot and a good gravedigger, and that anyone who made it to forty must have been a revered elder, if not a terrifying freak on nature. The truth is much more interesting.

Data about births and deaths is hard to come by for periods before the rise of modern bureaucracies. In a few localities there are church records going back into the late middle ages. Legal documents like wills, deeds, and contracts occasionally offer information about peoples’ births, ages, and deaths, but such documents come from only a very restricted class of people and they may be unreliable because people misrepresented the truth when it suited their political and economic purposes. Archaeological studies of burials can be very useful, although determining age from skeletal remains is imprecise, and we are at the mercy of biases in burial customs and survival of remains. All of these sources of information are partial and biased, but pulling them together gives us a rough sense of how people lived and died in earlier ages.

There are broad patterns that can be discerned from the evidence, but as with most such broad patterns we should always be alert to local variations. Another caution: I’m working from the evidence that I happen to be familiar with, which is mostly European and Mediterranean. Many of the same forces that were at work in that region of the world are relevant to others as well, but we must be alert to regional differences.

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