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Photo: Channel 4/Plimsoll Productions

An ancient Briton died and was buried in a limestone cave in Cheddar, in southwestern England, 10,000 years ago.

The bones of “Cheddar Man” were discovered in 1903, and some suspected this was the long-sought-after “first Briton,” perhaps dating from the absolute beginnings of Homo sapiens in Europe. Radiocarbon dating has since shown he lived and died about 10,000 years ago – much more recent than even some of the other cannibalized remains found in the very same cave in Somerset.

But Cheddar Man has a few surprises within his very bones that are now being unveiled in a new UK television special. A new DNA analysis shows that this ancient man’s skin was dark – showing genetic traits similar to that of people from sub-Saharan Africa, according to the findings, a collaboration between the Natural History Museum, University College London, and Channel 4.

“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,” said Ian Barnes, research leader in Ancient DNA at the Natural History Museum, in a statement on the work.

“He is just one person, but also indicative of the population of Europe at the time,” added Tom Booth, a postdoctoral researcher at the Museum. “They had dark skin and most of them had pale colored eyes, either blue or green, and dark brown hair.”

Cheddar Man, they determined, had blue eyes, dark curly hair, and dark skin.

The work involved painstaking extraction of minute genetic data from the fragile remains.

A hole measuring 2mm was drilled into the inner ear bone, and a few milligrams of the bone powder was extracted for analysis.

“To extract ancient DNA from a human or animal what you’re looking for is a dense bone which might have protected the DNA inside it as much as possible,” said Selina Brace, a DNA expert at the Museum. “We used to use leg bones or teeth as the thick bones and enamel keep DNA intact, but in the last two years we’ve shifted to using the petrous, or inner ear bone, which is the densest bone in the human body.”

The material had also been well-preserved because of the environment: the cool temperatures and stability of the limestone cave helped the genetic material age well over the millennia, Brace said.

The experts then used a next-generation shotgun sequencing technique, to recreate the genome.

That DNA data was then compared against the modern human information, and how it resulted in specific phenotypes.

To give structure to the reconstruction, Channel 4 and the Museum hired the Dutch brothers Adrie and Alfons Kennis to do a three-dimensional model based off the skull measurements. Using a high-tech scanner, and 3-D printing, to get the size and shape of the features. The dark skin and pale eyes went into the reconstruction, and Cheddar Man is now a sight in the 21st century.

“Cheddar Man subverts people’s expectations of what kinds of genetic traits go together,” added Booth.

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