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Face of 'Cheddar Man' unveiled in First Brit TV documentary

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The face of a 10,000-year-man has been recreated in a partnership between the Natural History Museum and University College London, whose work will be spotlighted in the channel 4 documentary First Brit.

A human male fossil skeleton, unearthed in 1903 in Gough’s Cave at Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, Cheddar Man has been the topic of constant mystery and intrigue. For over 100 years, scientists have tried to reveal Cheddar Man’s story, posing theories as to what he looked like, where he came from and what he can tell us about our earliest ancestors. Only now with world-leading research, cutting-edge DNA and facial reconstruction can we see for the first time the face of this 10,000 year old man, and ask how 300 generations later, he relates to us today.

In one of their most challenging human DNA projects to date - no British individual this old has ever had their genome sequenced - the Natural History Museum’s ancient DNA Professor Ian Barnes and his colleague Dr Selina Brace have carried out the first ever full DNA analysis of Cheddar Man.

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This is only possible because of spectacular breakthroughs in DNA sequencing. Their results will transform both the way we visualise our 10,000 year old ancestors and our understanding of how we relate to them.

Revealing the face of Cheddar Man

Prof Mark Thomas and Dr Yoan Diekmann at University College London analysed the sequences generated at the Natural History Museum to establish what Cheddar Man looked like. It was previously assumed that Europeans developed paler skin many thousands of years before Cheddar Man, so he was thought to have had reduced skin pigmentation and fair hair.

The results however, indicate that whilst Cheddar Man had blue eyes, he also had dark coloured curly hair and ‘dark to black’ skin pigmentation. This means that the lighter pigmentation now considered to be a defining feature of northern Europe, is a far more recent phenomenon.

A Western Hunter-Gatherer

Cheddar Man’s genetic profile places him with several other Mesolithic-era Europeans whose DNA has already been analysed – individuals from Spain, Hungary and Luxembourg. These so-called “Western Hunter-Gatherers”, a group that includes Cheddar Man’s ancestors, migrated into Europe at the end of the last ice age. Today, around 10% of White British ancestry can be linked to that population.

Professor Ian Barnes, Research Leader in Ancient DNA at the Natural History Museum, led a team of Ancient DNA experts as they analysed the entire DNA of the fossil skeleton. He said: “Cheddar Man is one of the oldest human specimens that we’ve worked with, and yet the preservation of DNA has been good enough to recover huge amounts of information about his appearance and ancestry. It’s been fantastic working with this excellent team, and getting to sample one of the most important human skeletons in the museum collection.”

First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man will air on Channel 4 on Sunday 18th February 2018.

(image copyright © Channel 4/Plimsoll Productions)

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