Poor old Cheddar Man. After spending over 9,000 years resting in relative peace, he’s now causing quite a stir after a Channel 4 documentary revealed that his skin was most likely to have been ‘dark’ or ‘dark to black’.
The discovery itself was interesting but, by the admission of the Natural History Museum (his modern-day London residence) themselves, not particularly surprising. Altogether more surprising (or perhaps not, given the times in which we live) has been the reaction to this news. “Cheddar Man is the savoury filling in a delicious Hope Not Hate sandwich” proclaimed Brian Reade in the Daily Mirror. “Somewhere near you a British racist has just had their lives turned upside down…” gloated Brendan Cox just days before his own life was presumably similarly affected by allegations of sexual misconduct.
A quick search for #CheddarMan on Twitter soon after the programme aired revealed that the keyboard assault was already well underway:
- “Bet Tommy Robinson has #CheddarMan on and is beside himself”
- “This must be really upsetting UKIP & the Brexity Trumpkins”
- “The only way this could annoy the Farage’s of this world more was if Cheddar Man looked like Jeremy Corbyn”
- And my personal favourite: “Knuckle-dragging racists all over Britain shaking their heads in disbelief, shouting ‘fake news’ at the TV, while taking selfies and zooming in to check their skin pigmentation. Yes, suck it up. #TheFirstBrit was dark skinned. Black.”
Cheddar Man lived over 9,000 years ago on a peninsula of the European continent that would one day become Britain. He belongs to the Mesolithic (or Middle Stone Age) period and would have been among the first people to re-colonise these lands after the last ice age. At this time, people lived a semi-nomadic ‘hunter-gatherer’ lifestyle, moving with their prey between seasonal hunting camps and supplementing their diet of fresh meat and fish with berries. This was the age immediately before the Neolithic (or New Stone Age), when the first pioneers initiated the greatest lifestyle shift in human history by settling down and farming the land – and subsequently setting us on a course for the modern-day way of life that we know today.
For Channel 4 though, these Mesolithic hunters were “the first modern Brits” (although they were also referred to as “the last of the hunter-gatherers” later in the programme), with Cheddar Man himself marking “the beginning of our national story”. To be fair to Channel 4 though, they did set their stall out in the very first scene in terms of where this was all heading. “There’s been a lot of talk lately about Britain,” boomed the narrator’s voice before we began to talk about “who belongs and who doesn’t” and how “people are in for a bit of a shock”. Of course, all the preceding press coverage meant it wasn’t a particularly big shock at all when the big reveal was made from under a cloth, with background music to add to the tension ahead of the moment when life as we knew it was presumably supposed to come crashing down.
I must admit, though, that the result was something quite beautiful to look at. The way those piercing blue eyes were set against the dark skin and hair really was quite striking. However, there was something I thought was missing. In his brilliant book ‘A History of Ancient Britain’, archaeologist and historian Neil Oliver describes the wonder he felt at coming face to face with Cheddar Man in the Natural History Museum. He recalls of the skeleton: “His skull is disfigured, just in the vicinity of where his right eyebrow would have been, by an ugly, ragged crater. It is the mark of bone disease and in life would have appeared as a large, weeping sore.” This, Oliver says, would have caused Cheddar Man great pain and discomfort, perhaps killing him eventually, “as well as looking dreadful.” This sort of thing would have been one of the harsh realities of life at this time, but perhaps that just didn’t fit the narrative.
Anyway, the big conclusion to of all this was that Cheddar Man’s ancestry lay in the Middle East and therefore “it may be we have to rethink some of our notions of what it means to be British”. But why? To me, this implies a belief that a not-insignificant proportion of people watching would previously have thought of skin colour as the one and only factor in defining a British person and I simply do not believe this to be the case. Is the most interesting thing about Cheddar Man really the colour of his skin? Or is this more a reflection of a growing and disturbing obsession with skin colour that seems to be being relentlessly promoted by some sections of society today? And, in a sense, are we not clutching at straws a little in this desperation to present him as “The First Brit”? As we touched upon earlier, Cheddar Man lived at a time when the land we call Britain was still attached to the European mainland. If Britain is indeed to be defined as this island nation we call home today, then there is definitely a case for saying that its true story begins many years after Cheddar Man’s death when Doggerland (the land mass that joined Britain to Europe) became engulfed by the waves in one catastrophic event. After all, it is hard to deny that almost all aspects of this country’s history since have been shaped by its island situation.
Of course, being one of the earliest people to set foot upon these lands after the last ice age means that Cheddar Man would have been amongst the first to look out over essentially the same landscape as we do today and therefore of course plays a part in Britain’s tale, but I couldn’t help think that the constant implication that this was some game-changing moment in our national psyche was less about history than it was about trying to hammer home some kind of (political) point. In fact, it was even stated later on in the programme that Cheddar Man is “more European than he is a Brit” (sound familiar?) before we went on to consider “how Cheddar Man are we?” This part of the show saw DNA taken from residents near to Cheddar Man’s original resting place in Somerset, with white face after white face flashing up as test subjects, before it was revealed that around 10% of the ancestry of British people who do not have a recent family history of migration can be attributed to the ancient population (known as the Western European Mesolithic Hunter Gatherers) to which Cheddar Man belonged. “We’re all a little bit Cheddar Man.”
For me, Cheddar Man represents something that I believe most right-thinking people didn’t need to be told in the first place. That being British isn’t just skin deep. It is not “an immutable truth”, the programme stated, that people who feel British should have white skin. Of course it isn’t, but did this need to be said in the first place? Feeling British is, of course, about far more. For some, it’s about shared values and culture, being proud to call this great country your own, whatever your skin colour. For others (like me), it’s a connection felt to the land itself, knowing its hills and valleys, forests and rivers. In that sense, perhaps I really am a little bit Cheddar Man. I got the impression that all of this was somehow supposed to be bad news for a lot of people and yet I think that says more about the people who thought that than it does about those of who they thought it. I imagine Cheddar Man himself would have wondered how we all have the time to worry about small things such as skin colour so much in the first place. And yet just a couple of days after being told that “we’re all a little bit Cheddar Man”, I saw a huge storm over Little Mix singer Jesy Nelson daring to choose to wear her hair in dreadlocks, with many Instagram users suggesting that this was “cultural appropriation” and therefore offensive to black people. One of the comments accusing her of this added “this hairstyle isn’t meant for you”. For me, this sort of attitude and atmosphere that is being whipped up in this country today is one of the most dangerous things we face. Can you imagine telling a black person that they can’t have blonde hair because it “isn’t meant for them”? No, of course not, because everybody should of course have the basic freedom to choose to look however they wish, regardless of skin colour. Unfortunately, this is the sort of attitude that the reaction to the Cheddar Man revelation showed is alive and well in British society today, fuelled in no small part by left-leaning sections of the media that would love to use this fascinating individual to further divide us.
If you ever get the chance to go and see Cheddar Man for yourself, take it. It will be a fascinating experience. And what you’ll see is a skeleton, perhaps the best and most simple representation of all of the fact that skin really isn’t that big a deal. And while we’re on the subject of skeletons, have you ever heard of the Red Lady of Paviland? He (yes, he, don’t misgender him please) is a 34,000-year-old skeleton discovered just across the Bristol Channel from Cheddar Man and is the oldest anatomically modern skeleton ever discovered in this country (in fact, his is the oldest ceremonial burial in Western Europe). Why can’t he be “The First Brit”? Perhaps his skin was the wrong colour…
Standing up for those without a voice in Britain
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