Cheddar Man and the racial controversy

News that early Europeans had dark skin is unlikely to change the way that anyone thinks about race, writes Christopher Goff.

I have not been able to turn on the TV or radio lately without someone telling me about the 10,000 year-old remains of Cheddar Man, and of how wonderful it is that DNA sequencing has revealed his skin to have been heavily pigmented. That one of our early forebears had such dark skin is apparently something which we are supposed to celebrate since I am told it undermines notions held amongst some Europeans of racial purity, although I can't ever claim to have met anyone with such views. On hearing the news of Cheddar Man, sometime singer and former Barking-resident Billy Bragg was one of those who couldn't quite contain his excitement, and who from his West Country mansion tweeted the following: "I just love the expression on Cheddar Man's face. It's like he knows how much it will annoy white supremacists to learn that the earliest Britons had dark skin".

Analysis of Cheddar Man's genome has shown him to be closely related to a number of other Mesolithic Hunter-Gatherers whom scientists have also been able to analyse after finding human remains of similar age to those of Cheddar Man in Luxembourg, Hungary and Spain. Cheddar Man's genome indicates that his eyes were blue and his skin dark, something which supports the view held amongst most academics that pale skin arrived in Britain about 6,000 years ago, most probably carried by a wave of crop-growing migrants from the Middle East who it is thought had fair skin and brown eyes. The process through which light-coloured skin evolved in humans is unclear, but a change to cereal-based diets lacking in Vitamin D offers the best explanation since this was something which forced selection in favour of pale-skinned individuals who were better able to manufacture Vitamin D in their skin through exposure to sunlight.

While experts think that present-day Europeans owe only about 10% of their ancestry to Mesolithic Hunter-Gatherers like Cheddar Man, this hasn't stopped some from seizing on this story as evidence of more direct African lineage. And while Africa is widely believed to have been the place where early humans first evolved, I would point out that an awful lot has happened since then in terms of human history. And that's putting it rather simply!

As humans began to spread northwards from Africa and to Europe and Asia it is thought that climate became a critical factor in human development, in so far as living in the colder conditions found at more northerly latitudes brought with it extra hardships and challenges, and which had the effect of expediting the process of selection. So while the advancement of humans in Africa continued to revolve around hunting and gathering in what was a more forgiving environment, their more northerly counterparts had a much more difficult time of things. As a result, it is thought that selection amongst Europeans became more about problem solving, and where things like the ability to grow crops and farm animals, to store food through the winter months, to manufacture tools and implements, to construct warm homes, to form communities allowing individuals to specialize in the development of certain skills, and to construct systems of trade all impacted on the process of human development. And so the evidence for what scientists refer to as Cold Climate Evolution Theory is today all around us, in so far as Europeans have managed to create fantastically elaborate societies and have taken civilization to all four corners of the globe.

The great transformation in the lifestyle of Europeans from hunting and gathering to agriculture and settlement has become known as the Neolithic Revolution, and it is this period which inspired some of the most important developments in human history, including the invention of the wheel, the planting of the first cereal crops, and the development of cursive script, mathematics and astronomy. And of course, with astronomy came the ability to navigate and to explore and settle new territory so that Europeans can now be found in large numbers all across the Americas and Australasia.

But to talk of the successes of Europeans these days is to venture into forbidden territory, such is the anti-racist fervour which grips Western society, completely paralyzing discussion on matters of race. Really, who would want to be a biological anthropologist in such a climate of fear? Anyone daring to mention the apparent successes of Europeans can easily attract the 'white supremacist' label, while those so accused might respond by saying that they are only pointing out realities, or talking science. The racial controversy continues to burn brightly – lots of people with African heritage remain trapped in a spiral of disadvantage and poverty, most evidently so in North America, while others claim that people with African heritage are held back in the racist societies that Europeans have created. I would add that my intention here is not to take sides in this argument, but merely to draw ones attention to this controversy that will just not go away.

Despite the glaring social and economic inequalities between blacks and whites in America, for example, it is interesting how reluctant people are to view multiculturalism in terms of failure, and perhaps so because in the minds of lots of people multiculturalism is not something that can easily be undone. But judging by all the TV adverts and programmes there are these days promoting inter-racial relationships one is inclined to think that people have hit on a way of eliminating those inequalities which seem to be part and parcel of multiculturalism, and the idea that they have seemingly come up with is one of encouraging mixing of the races. I venture this suggestion because I cannot think of any other reason to explain all the race-mixing imagery which nowadays appears on TV and in the media in general, and one cannot possibly see how such imagery could help a business sell more packets of gravy granules or whatever.

The 'opinion-formers' have decided that multiculturalism is unsatisfactory unless it can be progressed to its natural conclusion, that being one where interbreeding is commonplace. Only then might the widespread inequalities which exist in multicultural societies be resolved. In the meantime, anyone wanting to view multiculturalism as a success would be ill advised to do so because how can unequal societies in which one group prospers while another lives in relative deprivation – for whatever reason – possibly be viewed in terms of success?

Copyright © Christopher Goff
Tag: Race
Uploaded: 12 February, 2018.