A reproduction of Cheddar Man (c) Channel 4, Plimsol Productions

Q&A with Tom Booth

Patrick Steel, 14.02.2018
Ground-breaking research reveals Mesolithic Britons had dark skin
Tom Booth is a post-doctoral research associate on the Wellcome-funded project "Human Adaptation to Diet and Infectious Disease Loads, from the origins of agriculture to the present". His role involves identifying pertinent British archaeological human remains that may provide high-quality on-target DNA.

Booth was on the team that studied ancient DNA from Cheddar Man, a Mesolithic skeleton discovered in 1903 at Gough's Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, which has helped museum scientists paint a portrait of one of the oldest modern humans in Britain.

What is the historic significance of the Cheddar Man research?

Cheddar Man is the oldest complete human skeleton from Britain, dating to a period of time known as the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age). His population recolonised Britain around 11,600 years ago after it was depopulated during a cold snap and Britain has been occupied by humans ever since.

He also belongs to the first European population of people from whom modern white British people derive some of their ancestry. Humans had lived in Britain before this point, up to one million years ago, but in every case these populations did not stay.

Cheddar Man’s population were hunter-gatherers that used sophisticated stone tools to hunt game such as aurochs (wild cattle), red deer and wild boar, as well as for fishing. They were probably quite mobile and lived in temporary skin shelters. To aid the facial reconstruction of Cheddar Man, we were asked to find out what we could about his physical appearance from his DNA.

We analysed Cheddar Man’s genome and looked at a series of genes related to skin pigmentation in modern populations. The combination of genes Cheddar Man shows indicates that he probably had highly pigmented (i.e. dark) skin. This result is consistent with previous analyses of DNA from other Mesolithic Europeans which had suggested that light skin pigmentation is a relatively recent phenomenon in Europeans, and is mostly related to later migrations of people into Europe from western Eurasia, thousands of years after Cheddar Man died.

We also found that Cheddar Man’s combination of genes indicated that his eyes were lightly-pigmented, blue or green. This is also true of other Mesolithic Europeans for whom we have DNA data and suggests that combinations of physical characteristics considered to be unusual today could be common in the past and that ancestries and traits of populations living in particular geographic areas today are not indicative of the people who lived in these places in the past.

Have you been surprised by the reaction to the research findings?

Yes, we have all been surprised about the reaction to the Cheddar Man reconstruction. This is mostly because similar analyses of human remains who belonged to the same population as Cheddar Man had already identified that they commonly had dark skin pigmentation and blue or green eyes.

We also knew that the versions of genes primarily responsible for light skin pigmentation in modern white Europeans arrived in Europe several thousand years later as a result of migrations from other parts of west Eurasia.

I think the unexpected reaction shows that these kinds of scientific findings, particularly those that are counter-intuitive to most people’s understanding of the past, can take a while to filter into the public consciousness. It takes a big public engagement effort, such as the facial reconstruction of Cheddar Man, to really get this kind of science into the public discourse.

How did the collaboration with UCL and the model makers work?

The collaboration worked really well – the NHM team included archaeologists and ancient DNA specialists, while the team at UCL was composed of bioinformaticians and evolutionary geneticists. Each individual brought a specific skill set and perspective that allowed us to contribute equally. It also helps that we all get on really well socially and were able to pass ideas back and forth. Between us we came up with a prediction of what Cheddar man was likely to have looked like – skin, hair and eye pigmentation.

The Kennis brothers, the Dutch identical twin model makers who created the facial reconstructions, were very concerned with using the science to produce the most accurate reconstruction they could, and in this respect were very easy to work with in the sense of respecting the scientific results.

They built the face of Cheddar Man onto a 3D-printed version of his skull, so in terms of bone structure, the reconstruction is as accurate as it can be. The Kennis’ rewarded us by transforming our dry data into something that has a real humanity and emotion – something we could never have achieved with the dry scientific results alone.

Where can we see the reconstruction of the Cheddar Man?

Cheddar Man’s skeleton is currently on display in the Natural History Museum’s Human Evolution gallery. You can explore the place where his skeleton was found in the Museum of Prehistory at Gough’s Cave, near the village of Cheddar, Somerset. The new bust reconstruction of Cheddar Man is currently owned by the Kennis brothers.