10,000-year-old Cheddar Man is given a face in Channel 4 documentary

PUBLISHED: 17:22 07 February 2018 | UPDATED: 17:33 07 February 2018

Professors and doctors involved with the project. Picture: Tom Barnes/Channel 4

Professors and doctors involved with the project. Picture: Tom Barnes/Channel 4

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The face of Britain’s oldest complete skeleton which was found in Cheddar Gorge more than 100 years ago will be revealed in a Channel 4 documentary next week.

The Cheddar Man. Picture: Channel 4 Production CompanyThe Cheddar Man. Picture: Channel 4 Production Company

First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man will explore the history behind the Cheddar Man, a complete skeleton which was found in the gorge.

The Natural History Museum’s human evolution and DNA specialists teamed up with the University College London and the world’s foremost prehistoric model-makers to reveal the ‘surprising’ and ‘striking’ face of the famous Cheddar Man.

The project has been dubbed one of the ‘most challenging’ human DNA projects to date by the museum as research leader in ancient DNA, Professor Ian Barnes and his colleague Dr Selina Brace carried out the first DNA analysis on the skeleton.

Prof Ian Barnes said: “The Cheddar Man is one of the oldest human specimens we have worked with, and yet the preservation of DNA has been good enough to recover huge amounts of information about his appearance and ancestry.”

The history of the Cheddar Man

The fossil skeleton was unearthed in 1903 in Gough’s Cave at Cheddar Gorge and has been the topic of constant mystery and intrigue in the science community.

For more than 100 years, scientists have investigated the story behind the skeleton and posed theories about his life.

A Natural History Museum spokesman said: “Only now with world-leading research, cutting-edge DNA and facial reconstruction can we see for the first time the face of this 10,000-year-old man and ask how 300 generations later he relates to us.”

Professors looking at Cheddar Man in detail. Picture: Channel 4 Production CompanyProfessors looking at Cheddar Man in detail. Picture: Channel 4 Production Company

The museum’s research leader in human origins, Professor Chris Stringer, first excavated at Gough’s Cave 30 years ago and has been involved in the project ever since.

He said: “I first studied the Cheddar Man more than 40 years ago but could never have believed we would one day have his whole genome – the oldest British one to date.

“To go beyond what the bones tell us and get a scientifically-based picture of what he actually looked like is a remarkable and surprising achievement.”

MORE: Skeleton descendents reunited in cave.

Dutch model-making twins Adrie and Alfons Kenni with the Cheddar Man. Picture: Tom Barnes/Channel 4Dutch model-making twins Adrie and Alfons Kenni with the Cheddar Man. Picture: Tom Barnes/Channel 4

Revealing the face of the Cheddar Man

University College London professors Mark Thomas and Yoan Diekmann looked at various genetics and DNA gathered at the museum to establish the ancient skelelton’s facial appearance.

Results showed he had blue eyes but, much to the surprise of theorists, had dark, curly hair and ‘dark to black’ skin colouring – he was previously believed to have paler skin due to the European connections.

The skeleton’s genetic profile places him among the Mesolithic-era Europeans and describes him as a ‘Western Hunter-Gatherer’.

It is believed he and his ancestors migrated into Europe at the end of the last ice age.

MORE: Evidence of cannibalism was discovered in Gough’s Cave last year.

The 10,000-year-old skeleton. Picture: Channel 4 Production CompanyThe 10,000-year-old skeleton. Picture: Channel 4 Production Company

How the face was created

Prof Barnes and Dr Brace began working in the Natural History Museum’s ancient DNA lab, where they drilled 2mm holes into the ancient skull.

Scientists working on the project said the DNA had been ‘unusually well-preserved’ – believing the cool and stable environment of Cheddar Gorge was to thank – which helped them get enough genetic information to create the facial reconstruction.

Stills from The First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man. Picture: Channel 4 Production CompanyStills from The First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man. Picture: Channel 4 Production Company

Model-makers and Dutch twins Adrie and Alfons Kennis used 3D printing and a hi-tech scanner, which was originally designed to be used on the International Space Station, to render the skull in full detail and recreate the Cheddar Man’s face.

Leon Troake, operations manager at Cheddar Gorge & Caves, said: “The latest findings are fascinating. We now know so much more about this very special individual who lived in Cheddar Gorge 10,000 years ago.

“To be able to completely reconstruct what the Cheddar Man looked like in so much detail from such a small amount of DNA is incredible. We now know so much more about his skin colour, hair, facial features and eye colour, which has not been possible until now.

“Visitors to Gough’s Cave will now not only be able to see where Cheddar man was discovered but also have a good idea of what he looked like and imagine what life would have been like so long ago.

The skull of the Cheddar Man. Picture: Channel 4 Production CompanyThe skull of the Cheddar Man. Picture: Channel 4 Production Company

“Hopefully this is just the start for the team involved in this research, and will allow them to expand their knowledge. We’re delighted to be playing a part in these historical findings.”

The Cheddar Man’s skeletal remains are now kept on loan at the Natural History Museum in London, in the Human Evolution Gallery, while a replica set sit in the cave in Somerset.

First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man will air on Channel 4 on February 18.

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