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Cheddar Man and the Language of Race/ism

Last week it was revealed that Cheddar Man – the best preserved of the earliest skeletons found in the British Isles whose remains lay in the caves at Cheddar, Somerset until exhumation in the 20th century, had dark skin. This raised one of three responses from most people, not all of them pretty.

For some, it was shock and horror that ancient inhabitants of our “white” country were not actually white. For others, the initial response was amusement with the occasional nudge nudge, wink wink – I wonder what UKIP will make of that one! For the rest of us, mild indifference. Although I am not working as an archaeologist and don’t expect to do so for the rest of my working life, I do maintain a strong interest in the art and the science of a subject I’ve loved since childhood. Besides, some clients pay me to write about the subject on occasion so I do maintain some professional interest.

Source: Paul Townsend (link). Creative Commons (license). No changes made

Cheddar Man Had Dark Skin and Black Curly Hair

This was not new to me. After all, we know the British Isles were subject to several migrations in antiquity. We’ve known that one of these migrations came directly from North Africa with one possible route directly over the Strait of Gibraltar and up through modern France in a relatively short time. This should not be new information to anyone. Even Edward Rutherford’s novel Sarum published in 1997 had a chapter following the first migrant family from the continent and explained they had dark sin (although more of a Mediterranean look than what we understand of Cheddar Man now). Naturally there is some artistic license. We don’t know that the family got stuck and decided to stay when the ice floe broke behind them, but still. It’s been understood for a while now.

We also know we can trace modern white inhabitants to the early Indo-European cultures who also migrated from Africa but via the Middle East, across Eastern Europe, into Western and Northern Europe where they then settled – much later than Cheddar Man’s people. They would initially have had darker skin but as they migrated north, their skin would have become paler. Their slower progress into Europe can account for this. We know why paler skin developed in modern white people – it’s so the body can absorb more Vitamin D in the colder and darker climates of the northern hemisphere; it functions better in lower light levels. In contrast, darker skin is better protection against the most harmful of sun’s rays; it functions better where the sun is stronger. That is it – the only reason for skin tone variation.

#Triggered

There were plenty of humorous comments as highlighted in this BBC article. One witty commentor asked “If 10% of modern Brits are related to Cheddar Man, does that make us all Mini Cheddars?” (Mini Cheddars are a popular potato based crisp snack). But the typical round of outrage also made it into the media. One of the most shared comments came from Mail Online, The Daily Mail‘s website. Without a hint of irony the comment asked “What’s to say the person was not a foreign visitor?” Yes, people actually people this guy was a tourist – perhaps he was on some Mesolithic 18-30 holiday, coming over from North Africa to drink the British mead, stealing our food and women, and then marrying a local to steal our benefits. This stupid argument came up time and time again, as though crossing The Mediterranean was as simple then as it is now.

TheIndy100, the website for centrist-to-left newspaper listed some amusing responses. There are plenty of negative comments; I won’t recreate them here, but you can take a look at the Indy article here with some funny retorts. While some were outright racist, others pointed to the “political bias” of academic researchers – that taxpayers money is being wasted on a “liberal agenda”; seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. It is, however, inane in its predictability. One person claiming they’d seen lots of documentaries on DNA and knew that “they can’t get DNA from bones that old” (hint: they can, they did, and they have enough information to construct a genetic profile of Cheddar Man).

Now, I’m not an expert in DNA, but if people in a field I am trained in working on a cross-disciplinary study, having studied bones for years have come up with this conclusion then I am not going to argue. New Statesman lists a few more negative comments here if you want to read them. All of this throws up once again the futility and stupidity of ideas of racial separate-ness, racial supremacy, even racial identity, and the idea that one skin colour is more evolved than another.

Language and Racism

I’ve noticed how the language of race and racism have changed in recent years. Of course, outright racism is still there and we need only look at well-known racist pages to still see that sort of language. But for everyone else, the words and expressions used differ. Now, to avoid using words referring directly to skin colour and avoid seeming outright racist, we now say simply “immigrant” and “foreigner” even about people born in the same country as us. It’s as strange as it is concerning, highlighting the difference people feel from their neighbours. The very idea that Cheddar Man could have dark skin shows this. No, he couldn’t possibly have been born in this geographic location. He’s a visitor, an immigrant, a foreigner.

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2 thoughts on “Cheddar Man and the Language of Race/ism

  1. I was fascinated by an article on the subject. I got the impression that Cheddar Man was an early migrant to the British Isles and that later land bridges formed with other nationalities–like the Middle Eastern settlers–reaching the isolated shores. (Read this about two days ago, I may be misremembering the details.) The thing that I wondered about was how they determined eye color? Really, I can image hair and skin profiles could be judged based on percentages of dna characteristics, but how did they come up with blue eyes?? All in all, it is amazing what a little string of dna says about a person…and what peoples’ reactions say about mankind in general.

    1. Unlike skin colour, there is no evolutionary advantage to eye colouring. I understand the genetic mutation for blue eyes was traced back to around 10,000 years in a small population group – traced to a single ancestor.

      https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080130170343.htm

      It’s likely that both Cheddar Man’s people and later paler-skinned migrants came across the land bridges. I would assume Cheddar Man came from the southwest while the Indo-Europeans came from the east, most likely across Doggerland/Dogger Island which now lies beneath the North Sea. That flooded only around 6,000 years ago.

      https://www.zmescience.com/science/geology/doggerland-europe-land/

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