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Cheddar Man

In honor of Halloween, here is a skeleton story.

Recently I was on Family Tree DNA reviewing my results and there was a feature I had not previously seen called "mtDNA Video." It produced an overview of my mitochondrial DNA and discussed haplogroups. However, the most interesting part, for me, was when it mentioned that I had a common ancestor with at least 1 notable person whose DNA had been analyzed. That person was Cheddar Man, Britain's oldest complete human skeleton.

The remains of a young man, sealed under a stalagmite were uncovered in 1903 when workmen were digging a drainage trench for Gough's Cave, a popular tourist attraction in the Cheddar Gorge, in Somerset. The figure, feet curled up underneath him, was small, at about 5 feet 5 inches, and would have weighed around 140 pounds when he died in his early 20's. The cause of death has still not been determined by paleontologists. It has been speculated that he died a violent death due to a large crater-like lesion just above the skull's right orbit, suggesting that the man may have also been suffering from a bone infection. It may also have been from damage at the time of excavation.

When he was first found, there were claims that Cheddar Man, as he became to be known, was the long-sought earliest Englishman, with exaggerated dates of 40,000-80,000 years. Subsequent radiocarbon dating from the 1970's onwards suggested that he lived around 10,000 years ago during the Middle Stone Age, also known as the Mesolithic Era. This is still the oldest virtually complete skeleton that has been unearthed in the British Isles, although it is unclear whether the young man died in the cave or was brought there by fellow tribesmen and was then buried there.

Most of the Mesolithic human remains that date to this period were discovered in caves and there is a strong tradition of cave burial in the region. About a mile away for where Cheddar Man was found, there is another cave, known as Aveline's Hole. It is the earliest scientifically dated cemetery in Britain, about 10,200 and 10,400 years old and contains the largest assemblage of Mesolithic human remains found in Britain. However, much of the collection was lost due to pillaging, poorly recorded investigation and war. Archaeologists found the remains of about 50 individuals, all deposited over a short period of 100-200 years.

Cheddar Man, or Ched, was a member of a population of nomadic western European hunter-gatherers, whose remains have been found in Spain, Luxembourg and Hungary.

At that time, Britain was a peninsula of northern Europe, linked by an area of land that now forms the seabed of the southern North Sea and the Channel. As a result, nomadic people, often following migrating animals, undertook frequent visits and made the most of the British landscape, which was then flourishing in the wake of the retreat of the glaciers that had covered the country a few thousand years earlier.

But change was at hand. Like the rest of the world, Europe was continuing to warm, and ice caps were melting, raising sea levels. Around 8,000 years ago, the last land connection between Britain and Europe, a stretch of terrain called Doggerland, which linked north Norfolk with Holland, was submerged. Britain became an island and the few thousand individuals who were then roaming its forest and heaths in search of food were isolated. By accident, these hunter-gatherers became the founding mothers and fathers of Britain.

Ched lived around 300 generations ago, thousands of years before farming took off. This means that he would have lived as part of a primitive hunter-gatherer society where life revolved around chasing your next meal, which may have even been his friends if food supplies were scarce, since people living at that time were thought to have practiced cannibalism when food was scarce. As a hunter gatherer, there would have been no food security, so his diet would have depended partly on the seasons and partly on his luck while he was out hunting. So, if Ched still had the rumbles after his breakfast, he could have ambled into the cave next door to eat the neighbors.

In addition to seeds and nuts, his diet would have consisted of red deer, aurochs (large wild cattle) along with some freshwater fish. Like all humans across Europe at the time, Ched was lactose intolerant and was unable to digest milk as an adult, a trait that came about with the advent of farming.

Nomadic tribes like Cheddar Man's would have roamed the countryside, stopping for shelter whenever they found a decent cave to rest in. Archaeologists have found crude carvings, mostly of animals, on the walls of many caves which are believed to date back to around Ched's era. A few thousand years later, tribes became less nomadic and started building shelters where they set up camp, rather than hiding out in drafty caves. But this was after Cheddar Man's time, so after a stressful day of hunting and gathering, Ched may have unwound by scratching one of these drawings into a cave wall.

Ched lived in a time of huge leaps in hunting technology. Cheddar Man's people had developed effective weapons to use when hunting the local animal population, mainly deer, boar and wild cattle. Barbs, made with flint points, were added to wooden shaft spears to make it harder for prey to escape. They also hunted with rudimentary bows and arrows, crafted using basic woodworking tools. The wild deer roaming Britain's countryside would have made for tricky targets, but would provide plenty of meat once they'd been carved up. As an added bonus, Ched would have skinned the deer and turned him into a furry robe to wear.

As well as hunting land animals, Cheddar Man's people also caught plenty of fish.

They fished in Britain's streams and lakes using harpoons, meaning you needed razor-sharp reflexes to skewer your dinner. Ched might have finished off his day by heading out to the marshy countryside to go spear fishing, before trudging back to the cave to sleep so he could do it all over again the next day.

Now, getting back to present day, in 1997, Oxford scientists extracted mitochondrial DNA from Cheddar Man’s skeleton. That is the sort of DNA we all inherit from our mothers. Then the scientists checked DNA among the locals around Cheddar Gorge, where the skeleton had been found in a cave. A forty-two year old history teacher, living a mile away, had the same mitochondrial DNA. For nine thousand years, some of Cheddar Man’s family have stayed put. It also suggests that the English do not descend primarily from the Anglo-Saxons or even the Celts but rather from an earlier population.

Technology is a wonderful gift. How else would I have known that I share a common maternal ancestor with a 10,000 year old skeleton named Cheddar Man?

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