A lot can happen in 10,000 years
Ancestral Europeans and their meaning
In 1991 some German hikers made a bone-chilling discovery as they crossed the Alps between Austria and Italy: a human corpse. The man was initially believed to have died only recently, although his cause of death - an arrow wound - is rather unusual among Alpine tourists these days. That is because the corpse turned out to be over 5,000 years old, Ötzi the Iceman becoming something of a celebrity millennia after his death.
Since that time Ötzi has proved immensely useful in helping us understand prehistoric Europe and the peoples who inhabited it. In 2012, researchers published his genome, which rather defied conventional thinking about the arrival of Steppe people into the continent, and suggested that he had brown eyes and pale skin. Now, it turns out, that’s all wrong, and not only do we have to re-evaluate Ötzi’s ancestry - the original DNA was contaminated - but his appearance, too; contrary to what we thought before, he did not in fact look like one of the Dubliners, but had skin darker than modern-day Sicilians.
Ötzi is not the only ancient Europeans to have such pigmentation. The DNA of a girl uncovered from beneath the ground in Sweden, and who had entirely Swedish ancestry, revealed that she was brown skinned. The 2019 discovery of the 6,000-year-old relics surprised many, for whom it also made an interesting political point - that Europeans have always been multiracial rather than white. That discovery echoed the revelation, made the previous year, that the oldest fully-complete skeleton in Britain belonged to a brown-skinned man with pigmentation closer to that of modern Africans.
Cheddar Man, who was in his early twenties, was killed around 7150 BC 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 Britain’s oldest human skeleton but incomplete. He was actually a man but the scientist who first analysed the remains was also 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 also 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 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. That discovery sparked interest, but apparently wasn’t actually that interesting to geneticists, since at that far back almost everyone is going to be descended from any genetic survivor and haplogroups are spread widely.
Later, Cheddar Man’s skin colour turned out to reveal even more about our distant past. Perhaps it even said something about Who We Are. Upon the 2018 revelations, various newspapers quoted UCL’s Yoan Diekmann, a member of the team analysing the remains, who said it showed the traditional link between Britishness and whiteness was ‘not an immutable truth. It has always changed and will change’.
Yet the odd thing about this discovery, and that in Sweden, was that it had been hypothesised in a book several years before, written by two anthropologists and with implications that are anything but progressive. Rather than confirming European society’s inherent diversity, dark-skinned Cheddar Man actually lent weight to the most controversial idea of the 21st century.
In their 2009 book The 10,000 Year Explosion Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending had suggested that Europeans were dark until relatively recently, because pale skin would only have become advantageous when people adopted agriculture. Hunter-gatherers enjoyed a high protein diet, but after the switch to cereals rickets would have become a serious problem, and so mutations for fair skin – which absorbs Vitamin D from sunlight more efficiently – would have spread quickly.
Interestingly, they suggested that this would have happened far quicker than we have traditionally imagined, because the advantage was enormous. As they wrote, ‘If it is indeed that recent, it must have had a huge selective advantage, perhaps 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, but the authors suggested that pale skin ‘must have had a more limited distribution in early historical times, particularly in peripheral areas’ where there was still a protein-rich diet: ‘in fact, this may explain the Roman impression that the Picts of Scotland were dark-skinned.’
I assumed that when the Romans talked of dark Picts they meant it in that brooding Gordon Brown/Marti Pellow/Neil Oliver sort of way, the combination of black hair and pale skin often found in Celts. But maybe they meant it literally, and the next BBC historical drama could have Calgacus played by a black actor – after all, they are usually such sticklers for historical accuracy on these matters.
This wasn’t their only correct prediction. Cochran and Harpending also hypothesised that Neanderthals did not actually die out, but interbred with modern humans, something that was not widely believed at the time. Again, they have since been proven right - today Europeans and Asians are thought to be, on average, around 2% Neanderthal, and this admixture still plays a part in life outcomes, linked to risk factors for depression and nicotine addiction; indeed certain Neanderthal genes were also thought to play a part in Covid outcomes.
Cheddar Man’s dark skin added further weight to Cochran and Harpending’s theory that human evolution has actually sped up over the past 10,000 years, rather than slowed down; in fact this evolution can be so rapid that Britons have changed considerably even in the last two millennia.
The theory makes obvious sense; as humans evolved in groups of 100 or so the opportunities for advantageous mutations to spread were very limited. Once in a while a child in a hunter-gatherer tribe is blessed by being born with such a mutation, but the group is so small in number that this happens infrequently and rarely takes root, especially as he or she may well die before reaching the age of marriage.
Once a human society grows to 10,000 people, as it did with the development of cities after 8000 BC, then the possibility for advantageous mutations to take hold in a population hugely increases. And a mutation which gives even a small selection advantage will, over a few generations, go from 0.1% of the population to most of it.
The classic example is adult lactose tolerance, which developed among herders and meant the difference between life and death when hunger set in; drinking another animal’s breast milk is sort of intrinsically disgusting, and no one would just invent it now – if you find ‘eating the bugs’ to be some gross PSYOP by the forces of globalism, imagine ‘suck the teat’ – but it was advantageous.