The early inhabitants of Europe were previously thought to have quickly evolved pale skin about 45,000 years ago. The recent reconstruction of the face of the Cheddar Man, however, contradicts this idea.
Dark Skinned With Blue Eyes
The Cheddar Man, a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer who stood about 166 centimeters and died in his twenties, lived about 10,000 years ago. Genetic markers hinted that he had skin pigmentation often linked to those in the sub-Saharan Africa. He had dark skin tone and blue eyes
"He reminds us that you can't make assumptions about what people looked like in the past based on what people look like in the present, and that the pairings of features we are used to seeing today aren't something that's fixed," said Tom Booth, who works with the Natural History Museum's collection of humans to study human adaptation to changing environments,
Although the ancient Briton is just one person, researchers said that his traits are indicative of those of the population of Europe during his time. Booth said that these people had dark skin, and most of them had dark brown hair and pale-colored eyes that were either blue or green.
A Relatively Recent Phenomenon
Researchers said that the Cheddar Man shows that the lighter skin that characterizes modern Europeans is a relatively recent phenomenon. Genes for lighter skin apparently became widespread in European population far later than earlier thought.
Scientists think that the population living in Europe evolved to become lighter-skinned because a fairer complexion absorbs more sunlight, which can help avoid vitamin D deficiency.
The ancient Britons may have had diet rich in meat and fish, which helped supply them with the amount of vitamin D that they needed.
"It's kind of surprising, because you would have thought [light skin] would have come more quickly as people are moving into these different climates. But in fact what we think is they had a very meat and fish-rich diet, so it was quite likely they were getting their vitamin D from there," said ancient DNA researcher Selina Brace.
Pale Skin May Have Emerged After Advent Of Farming
The findings also suggest that pale skin may have emerged possibly after the advent of farming. People started to obtain less of their vitamin D through dietary sources such as oily fish when they started farming.
"It seems that pale eyes entered Europe long before pale skin or blond hair, which didn't come along until after the arrival of farming," Booth said.