The first Britons were black. What does that say about Who We Are?

The ancient Britons were dark skinned, a new analysis of the island’s oldest complete skeleton has discovered.

Cheddar Man, who was in his early twenties, was killed around 7150BC and his body remained in Gough Cave’s for over nine millennia before being discovered by workmen in 1903. (The Red Lady of Paviland is older but incomplete. He was actually a man but the man who first analysed the skeleton was a creationist who therefore concluded, due to the red dye found with the corpse, that he was a Roman-era prostitute.)

Cheddar Man lived a short and violent life, although by no means exceptional to his era. His death, however, was not in vain, since he has provided huge amounts of information to his collateral descendants. For example back in 1996 scientists took some of the caveman’s mitochondrial DNA, which runs unaltered in the female line, and also some samples from local people, finding a direct match in a 42-year-old teacher in nearby Bristol. He lived only a mile from where his maternal relative died; soon afterwards a Melbourne man whose female ancestor had left England in 1911 was also matched.

Cheddar Man’s death – he has a hole in his skull from an attack which killed him – has also added to the growing body of evidence concerning violence during the Stone age, while now his skin colour adds further to our vague understanding of the distant past. Perhaps it says something about Who We Are. Both the Guardian and Telegraph quoted Yoan Diekmann, a computational biologist and a member of the project’s team, who said it showed the traditional link between Britishness and whiteness was ‘not an immutable truth. It has always changed and will change’.

The idea that ancient Britons were not white has been suggested before. Back in 2009 Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending wrote in The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution that Europeans were dark-skinned until relatively recently, because pale skin would only have become advantageous when people adopted agriculture. Hunter-gatherers had a high protein diet, but after they switched to cereals then rickets would have become a serious problem, and so mutations for fair skin – which absorbs Vitamin D from sunlight more efficiently – would have therefore spread quickly.

What’s interesting about their theory is the idea that this would have happened far quicker than we have traditionally imagined, because in large, densely populated mammal societies evolution speeds up. As they wrote, ‘If it is indeed that recent, it must have had a huge selective advantage, perhaps as high as high as 20 per cent. It would have spread so rapidly that, over a long lifetime, a farmer could have noticed the change in appearance in his village.’

Agriculture did not reach Britain until around 4000-3700 BC, so by their theory Cheddar Man would indeed have had dark skin; in fact, the authors suggested that pale skin ‘must have had a more limited distribution in early historical times, particularly in peripheral areas: in fact, this may explain the Roman impression that the Picts of Scotland were dark-skinned.’

I don’t know if that’s true – I assumed that when the Romans talked of ‘Dark Picts’ they meant in that brooding Gordon Brown/Marti Pellow/Neil Oliver sort of way – but it’s an interesting thought.

Cochran and Harpending also hypothesised that Neanderthals did not actually die out, but rather Europeans and Asians are descended from them – and they have since been proven right. Cheddar Man’s dark skin appears to add further weight to their theory that human evolution has sped up over the past 10,000 years, which will not turn out to be quite the victory for the progressive narrative that people are taking from this story.

What do you think?

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