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EPISODE 16: Beyond the Branches, to Mesolithic Cheddar Man

Updated: Nov 6, 2021

Throughout the last 15 episodes I have been trying to understand how and why I find myself in Canada. Understanding my settler past requires researching the migration stories of my ancestors. These stories include, the Acadian expulsion, Scottish lowland clearances, British Loyalists, and Fille du Roi, all examples from my family tree. In this episode, I want to tell the story of one of my oldest known relatives – Cheddar Man, who lived approximately 10,000 years ago in Britain. Of course, I will never be able to place Cheddar Man in my tree on ancestry, but my mapped genome tells me that I am a distant relative of this stone age man. What is the migration story of Cheddar Man? What was his life like?

Welcome to the Maple Family Treehouse. I am Kael your host. And in this episode, I want to tell you the story of Cheddar Man. But first a little context – all of human history…don’t worry it will only take a few minutes…

The universe appears roughly 13.7 billion years ago.

Stars eventually appear, which create the goldilocks conditions that made earth possible.

200,000 years ago – Humans are present on earth

60,000 - 100,000 years ago (tentatively, because the date keeps getting pushed back further and further) – the first group of humans migrate out of Africa, settling in Asia first. As conditions changed, groups of humans migration west.

One of the biggest changes happened about 15,000 years ago our landscape on earth drastically changed as the last ice age ended and opportunities for hunting and gathering expanded. As ice receded and temperatures rose. These major environmental changes brought temperatures and sea levels to near modern levels over the course of 5,000 years. This shift was especially dramatic in the northern hemisphere. As the sea levels rose the coast lines changed. Britain was once connected to the rest of Europe by an area of land we now refer to as Doggerland. This land was directly affected by the rising sea levels – Doggerland eventually became submerged in water, forcing a great migration into Britain. Which became an island, and the few thousand individuals who were then roaming its forest and heaths in search of food were isolated. By accident, these hunter-gatherers became the founding mothers and fathers of Britain. Cheddar Man is descendant of this isolated group that made Britain their home.

How do we know this?

In Somerset England’s Cheddar Gorge, 1903, the complete skeleton of a man in his 20’s was found - Cheddar Man. He is roughly 10,000 years old making him the oldest full skeleton found in Britain to date. Finding a full human skeleton that is as well preserved, as Cheddar Man was is important because it meant they were able to get the appropriate samples to map his entire genome.

I just finished having my own genome analysis done. Once completed my genome was then compared to Cheddar Man’s via an online service I joined. It turns out I have a lot in common with Cheddar Man, genetically speaking. In fact, I am 97% genetically closer to Cheddar Man than all the other people related to Cheddar Man. This amazing news made me wonder, who Cheddar Man was, what his life was like…Here is what we know so far…

Cheddar Man settled in Britain just after the last ice age. He was a Mesolithic, or middle stone age, hunter gatherer. His lifestyle involved moving with the resources within a local environment. That local environment was a collection of islands off the Western coast of Britain. Although semi-nomadic the well fed, well outfitted man, lived a carefully planned existence that required an array of knowledge and skill for foraging and gathering. His diet involved fish, birds, deer, wild cattle, hazel nuts, wild grasses, a variety of vegetables, and medicines. A well-informed systematic exploitation of different resources available from the islands made up the lifestyle of Cheddar man. He knew these resources intimately. Cheddar man would have lived in a small, isolated community of about 5,000 people. In addition to survival, the life of cheddar man involved a culture with rituals and ceremony. A skull of a red deer stag was found near cheddar man. The skull was carefully worked to serve as a headdress complete with antlers. No doubt, this culture reflected the daily, seasonal, and developmental cycles of nature.

He stood 166 cm tall, with dark hair, dark skin, healthy teeth, and blue eyes. And this is my Mesolithic grandfather. What does this mean? Well for one thing, it is the first time I can give a land acknowledgement and refer to people I am genetically related to. The lifestyle of Cheddar man was rooted in traditions that had existed for thousands of years. The Western Coastline of the UK is the land of the blue-eyed, Mesolithic, western hunter gathers. The last hold outs in the face of the Neolithic period that brought farming and domestic livestock. People that lived along side the wild and wooded landscape. People who were part of nature. Lived in harmony with it.

For hunter gatherer societies, skills centered around survival. Making shelter, clothing, and tools. But they also had a rich and complex culture. I mentioned that red deer skull headdress was found near Cheddar man. This artifact provides an important clue to his culture. Similar headdresses were found at A Neolithic settlement that existed 1000 years earlier called Starr Carr, near North Yorkshire. It is from settlements like this one that we know burial rituals and graveyards were common. Cheddar man however was found alone. Meaning he was purposefully buried alone or died alone and was never recovered by the people who knew him. Another possibility is that there were other remains and artifacts but the were removed. A report from the natural history museum cites, “…several Victorian accounts, [of] a large quantity of bones, teeth of extinct animals, flint knives and bone instruments were, unfortunately, wheelbarrowed out from the site and discarded. Some must have been from earlier occupations of the cave, but it is possible some would have held additional clues about the life of Cheddar Man and other humans who once lived in the region.

Those remains could have served as vital clues as to not only the life of Cheddar man but the also the diversity added by later waves of migrants.

You see, British people today carry around 10% Mesolithic DNA derived from the time of Cheddar Man. The remaining 90% comes from later waves of migrants during and after the Neolithic period.

The guardian explains it well…

“The continent was awash with migrations…the standard agent for bringing about cultural change.” Our predecessors moved around a lot more, he added, and were able to move far greater distances than we have given them credit for until now. “It is only when farming arrived that we became sedentary, and when that happened we also got the concept of land ownership and with it the idea of defence – and in its wake came conflicts,” said Bates. “It took generations to occur, and it happened in many other parts of the world. Nevertheless, it was the biggest social change that ever affected our species. The story of Cheddar Man gives us a feeling for the profundity of that change.”

And it gives me a glimpse beyond the branches of my family tree, into a time period I can point to and say, that spot is where many of my ancestors sat for a few thousand years in the mother family tree, linking me directly to the grandest narrative of all, the story of humans on this planet.

Sources for this episode

1. Nebula Genomics, where my genome was mapped out.

2. My True Ancestry, where my genome was compared to Cheddar Man’s genome.

3. The History of our World in 18 mins. By David Christian, one of the founders of the Big History project.

4. Cheddar Man: Mesolithic Britain’s Bue-Eyed Boy, at the Natural History Museum.

5. Cheddar Man changes the way we think about our ancestors. The Guardian.

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