Cheddar Man and his relatives from down the road

Cheddar Man and his relatives from down the road.

By the late Summer of 1997 a few years after the Iceman work, I was recovering ancient DNA from a number of important fossils that came through the lab. What had been lacking up to then, other than mere curiosity, was a good rationale for this work. What were we hoping to achieve? I was working on the overall settlement of Europe at the time and wanted to test the predominant theory that most Europeans descended from a 'wave' of immigration from the Near East over the past 8000 years. These people were agriculturalists and, according to the theory, they had overwhelmed and displaced the indigenous hunter-gatherers.

Only a very few British fossils date from before the arrival of agriculture. Two of these were found in Cheddar Caves in Somerset. Together with Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum in London, who curated the fossils, we recovered and sequenced their DNA. The sequences were identical to many people in Britain today whose ancestors had clearly not been swept away by Near-Eastern farmers. 

As a graphic illustration I took samples from local schoolchildren, two of whose DNA exactly matched Cheddar Man. A third, from the history master, was a very close match, demonstrating the amazing continuity of DNA in Somerset and the fact that Cheddar folk had only moved two miles down the road in more than 10,000 years.