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Early British humans had dark skin, DNA analysis reveals

Press Trust of India  |  London 

The first modern Britons, who lived about 10,000 years ago, had dark skin and blue eyes, researchers said today citing a new groundbreaking DNA analysis of Britain's oldest complete skeleton.

Researchers from London's Natural History Museum extracted DNA from the Stone Age skeleton, named "Cheddar Man" which was discovered in 1903, and University College London (UCL) researchers then used genome analysis for a facial reconstruction.

Their findings, to be presented in a documentary titled 'First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man', indicate that lighter skin characteristics of modern Europeans is a relatively recent phenomenon.

"The historical perspective that you get just tells you that things change, things are in flux, and what may seem as a cemented truth that people who feel British should have white skin, through time is not at all something that is an immutable truth," said Yoan Dieckmann, one of the UCL researchers on the project.

Scientists believe that populations living in Europe became lighter-skinned over time because pale skin absorbs more sunlight, which is required to produce enough Vitamin D.

The latest findings suggest lighter skin may have emerged later, possibly when the advent of farming meant people were obtaining less Vitamin D though dietary sources like oily fish.

Cheddar Man, who would have lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, had blue eyes, a very dark brown to black complexion and dark curly hair.

According to scientists, he lived shortly after the first settlers crossed from continental Europe to Britain at the end of the last ice age and people of white British ancestry alive today are descendants of this population.

The Natural History Museum researchers extracted the DNA from part of the skull of Cheddar Man near the ear known as the petrous.

They then teamed up with researchers at UCL to analyse the results, including gene variants associated with hair, eye and skin colour.

The discovery shows that genes for lighter skin became widespread in European populations far later than originally thought and that skin colour was not always indicative of geographic origin, unlike modern day.

"I think we all know we live in times where we are unusually preoccupied with skin pigmentation," said Steven Clarke, director of the documentary, which will be aired on the UK's Channel 4 on February 18.

It is believed that pale skin probably arrived in Britain with a migration of people from the Middle East around 6,000 years ago. This population had lighter skin and brown eyes and would have absorbed populations like the ones Cheddar Man belonged to.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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First Published: Wed, February 07 2018. 20:25 IST