The Dark Man of Cheddar

Cimmerians. These people were descendants of the ancient Atlanteans, though they themselves were unaware of their descent, having evolved by their own efforts from the ape-men to which their ancient ancestors had sunk. They were a tall powerful race, averaging six feet in height. They were black haired, and grey or blue eyed. They were dolichocephalic, and dark skinned, though not so dark as either the Zingarans, Zamorians or Picts.
– Robert E. Howard, “Notes on Various Peoples,” The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p348-349

Then when I was about twelve I spent a short time in New Orleans and found in a Canal Street library, a book detailing the pageant of British history, from prehistoric times up to – I believe – the Norman conquest. It was written for school-boys and told in an interesting and romantic style, probably with many historical inaccuracies. But there I first learned of the small dark people which first settled Britain, and they were referred to as Picts. I had always felt a strange interest in the term and the people, and now I felt a driving absorption regarding them.
– Robert E. Howard, letter to Harold Preece, 20th October 1928*

Prof Mark Thomas and Dr Yoan Diekmann at University College London analysed the sequences generated at the Natural History Museum to establish what Cheddar Man looked like. It was previously assumed that Europeans developed paler skin many thousands of years before Cheddar Man, so he was thought to have had reduced skin pigmentation and fair hair. The results however, indicate that whilst Cheddar Man had blue eyes, he also had dark coloured curly hair and ‘dark to black’ skin pigmentation. This means that the lighter pigmentation now considered to be a defining feature of northern Europe, is a far more recent phenomenon.
– The First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man Press Pack 

The recent news about Cheddar Man will come as no surprise to people with an interest in anthropology, or even ancient history. Britons with dark skin & black, curly hair have been recorded since the Roman period, with early 20th Century folklorists such as Margaret Alice Murray, David MacRitchie, and G.F. Scott Elliot detailing stories of the early inhabitants of the British Isles.

What is perhaps more surprising is the reaction to that news.


Who were the original inhabitants of Britain, whether they were indigenous or foreign, is, as usual among barbarians, little known. Their physical characteristics are various, and from these conclusions may be drawn… The dark complexion of the Silures, their usually curly hair, and the fact that Spain is the opposite shore to them, are an evidence that Iberians of a former date crossed over and occupied these parts.
A Wilderness of Peace’s favourite Roman, AgricolaBook 1, Chapter 11

It is possible—I do not say that it is more than possible—that the dark men and women found about Land’s End, tall and handsome, found also in the Western Isles of Scotland and in West Ireland, may be the last relics of this infusion of blood.
– S. Baring-Gould, A Book of the West: Being An Introduction to Devon and Cornwall, V1, 1899

When the study of sociology first sprang up in the last century, it at once became a fundamental doctrine that the Aryans had always been strictly patriarchal, and that polyandry and descent through women was unknown amongst them. Though this view has received many rude shocks in later days, Professor Zimmer argues from it that the indigenous people of Britain and Ireland were non-Aryan.
It is well known from the ancient writers that the Picts were polyandrous and that succession was consequently through females. Again, it is certain, both from the ancient Irish literature and also from statements of external writers, that the Irish were polyandrous, and that they also almost certainly traced descent through women. Accordingly, Professor Zimmer infers that the indigenous race was non-Aryan.
– Professor William Ridgeway, The Application of Zoological Laws to Man, Popular Science Monthly V73, December 1908

In very ancient times Britain had been twice conquered, first by the small, dark Picts of the Mediterranean, and later (about 2000 or 1000 B.C.) by the tall, brown-haired, Gaelic-speaking Celts… Then it is his turn to become a malignant gnome, a dark little dwarf, whose stone arrows are to be dreaded… It is by no means improbable that the “little people” – that is, the small dark Picts – did live on for many years in those underground houses of theirs.
– G.F. Scott Elliot, The Romance of Early British Life: From the Earliest Times to the Coming of the Danes, 1909

The skeletal remains in Neolithic burial-barrows prove that the people who then inhabited Great Britain were short in stature, the height of the men being 5 feet 5 inches and the women proportionately less. They were long-headed and probably had dark complexions (hence perhaps the affectionate nickname of Brownie given to the kindly fairy).
– Margaret Alice Murray, Chapter II – The Worshippers, The God of the Witches, 1933

The complexion of the earliest inhabitants of the British Isles is, understandably, deeply controversial and fraught with pseudoscience, pseudohistory, and outright myth-making: much of the material from the most well-known sources of the “Dark Briton” hypothesis have been vigorously challenged over the decades. Nonetheless, Cheddar Man is just the latest in a number of studies suggesting that the genetic makeup of the people of Britain might not be quite what we always imagined: the major discovery here is actually in the light eyes, which were hitherto believed to have arrived in Britain only with later migrations. It is only with the advancement of genetics and exploration of human biology that we can achieve a clearer understanding of those ancient peoples.

Unfortunately, as with a lot in science, it’s easy to get distracted with political points-scoring: I couldn’t count the number of folk whose reaction was something along the lines of “I bet this’ll upset the Britain First crowd!” Politicians, reporters, broadcasters, writers, actors, commentators, friends, all expressed their joyful schadenfreude of this seemingly stunning contradiction – that the sort of people who demand to Keep Britain White, expel migrants, and preserve British racial purity will simply not know what to think when it emerges that one of the earliest inhabitants of the British Isles had rather darker skin than they did.

Sure enough, some of these doofuses were confused and disoriented. Understandable, since most of the population aren’t anthropologists, and don’t know about stuff like that in any great detail. It certainly isn’t helped when loudmouthed pseudogogues present invented stories about British genetic heritage without challenge, or the constant stream of anti-immigration rhetoric pumped into popular discourse by powerful press barons and oblivious national broadcasters. The temptation is to treat this scientific discovery as a jumping-off point for a larger conversation about the kind of society we want to have, about the place of people of many hues and origins in the British Isles, and how we talk about this subject after decades of avoidance.

There’s just one problem, and it’s a big one – this is not news to the more dangerous white supremacists. I couldn’t join in with the pointing and laughing at those stupid racists, because I knew it was based on a false premise. The idea of dark-skinned early Britons is not only a well-established historical hypothesis, it’s a hypothesis that has been used to perpetuate racial oppression. Linking certain populations of the islands to a perceived “inferior” strain – in particular the Cornish, Welsh, Manx, Irish, and Highland “Scotch” (as they were then known) – was used as justification for their oppression:

Viz. 1. in the Cornish, Welch, Manks, Highland Scotch, and Irish provinces of the British empire (in the first and last it is true that the barbarous Celtic blood has been too much improved by Teutonic admixture, to allow of our considering the existing races as purely Celtic)…
The London Magazine v7, 1823

Ethnologically the Celtic race is an inferior one, and attempt to disguise it as we may, there is naturally and rationally no getting rid of the great cosmical fact that it is destined to give way – slowly and painfully it may be, but still most certainly – before the higher capabilities of the Ango-Saxon. In the meantime, and apparently as a part of the natural law which had already pushed the Celt from continental Europe westward, emigration to America is the only available remedy for the miseries of the race, whether squatting listlessly in filth and rags in Ireland, or dreaming in idleness and poverty in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.
Fifeshire Journal, 1840

Burdensome and useless… Collective emigration is, therefore, the removal of a diseased and damaged part of our population. It is a relief to the rest of the population to be rid of this part.
The Scotsman, 26 July 1851

The islanders were urged to emigrate and Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan, who had, in McWatt’s words, ‘honed his genocidal inclinations as a colonial administrator in Calcutta’, was charged with setting up the Highland and Island Emigration Society and expressed the view that a ‘national effort’ would now be needed to rid the land of ‘the surviving Irish and Scotch Celts’, to make way for racially superior settlers. He welcomed ‘the prospects of flights of Germans settling here in increasing numbers – an orderly, moral, industrious and frugal people, less foreign to us than the Irish or Scotch Celt, a congenial element which will readily assimilate with our body politic’.
Letterbook of Highland and Island Emigration Society, 30th June 1852

The Iberians are believed to have been originally an African race, who thousands of years ago spread themselves through Spain over Western Europe. Their remains are found in the barrows, or burying places, in sundry parts of these countries. The skulls are of low prognathous type. They came to Ireland and mixed with the natives of the South and West, who themselves are supposed to have been of low type and descendants of savages of the Stone Age, who, in consequence of isolation from the rest of the world, had never been out-competed in the healthy struggle of life, and thus made way, according to the laws of nature, for superior races.
– H. Strickland Constable, Ireland from One or Two Neglected Points of View, 2nd of March 1889

The only racists who will have a problem with Cheddar Man’s skin colour are, more than likely, low-information individuals whose opinions are shaped by an increasingly belligerent environment with a vested interest in turning them against people “not from here.” These are the sort of people who might complain about nebulous, undefined migrants, yet not do so if they knew someone – “not you, Mahmud, you’re alright.” They are people who will, more likely than not, reject these prejudices with association and affiliation from minority groups. They are the people who voted Leave, who vote for Theresa May despite sharing little to no values with her party, who voted No to independence for fear that Scotland would be swamped by hordes of migrants. I can’t feel schadenfreude to them.

The worst racists, the really dangerous ones, will experience zero discomfort at the “revelation” of Cheddar Man, because – in what seems a completely counter-intuitive, unintended way – they will think it supports their racial superiority. The white supremacist mythology of Britain is predicated on the pure, glorious Anglo-Saxons subjugating, expelling, and annihilating the “inferior” Celts, forcing them to the Atlantic margins. In white supremacy as well as politics, Britain is England plus three: only by relinquishing their culture, their language, and even their genetic purity, are the Celts of the Plus Three Nations deemed acceptable into the Proper Brits Club. They are the people who talk openly and unabashedly of eugenics, who deny the atrocities of the Holocaust, who would be perfectly happy if certain people would just disappear off the face of the earth. They think not only that White is Right, but that a certain type of White is Right – and that is England, the English, the Anglo-Saxon race.

They are wrong in every way. The Anglo-Saxon genocide of the Britons never happened. A massive 2015 study of British genetics found that Anglo-Saxons most likely intermarried with the indigenous Britons, rather than replaced them outright: as with modern times, the average English person is just another human being – thoughtful, compassionate, sympathetic – as opposed to the evils that seek to crush us as anyone. 1 in 10 people in Britain share some genetic link to Cheddar Man himself. And the many tribes of indigenous Britons, even of neighbouring populations in Cornwall and Devon, display greater distinction from each other than one would expect – indeed, there was no monolithic “Celtic Britain.”

There was once a time where Britain was just an island: where “Briton” was just the name for those who made the isle their home. There was a time where those Britons were not considered one homogenous race; nor ruled as a single state by a single political elite; nor amalgamated into a single culture, language, or flag. For centuries, the British Isles were isles of many nations and peoples, long before Caesar came ashore, and long after the last legions left. The British Isles of Cheddar Man may have been violent, dark, and bleak – but there are lessons we modern inhabitants would do well to learn.

*For more information on Robert E. Howard, Conan, the Picts, and turn-of-the-century pulp fiction representations on anthropology, I delve into this sort of thing over at my non-politics blog, The Blog That Time Forgot.

10 thoughts on “The Dark Man of Cheddar

  1. Marconatrix says:

    “… squatting listlessly in filth and rags …”
    The true title of that ‘secret’ report on the state of a post-brexit Britain?

  2. JGedd says:

    Glad you are back in such fine style.

    As to ancestry, Richard Dawkins used to ask his first year students, at the beginning of lectures in genetics, how far back in time did they think that they would have to go before finding a common ancestor. Answers invariably came back – 500 years, 1000 years etc. They were taken aback to be told, in fact only about 100 years.

    You only have to do a simple exercise of going back generation by generation in arithmetical progression – 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents etc., – to find that by the early middle ages you have an impossibly large number of individuals as ancestors for the size of the populaton of Scotland at that time.

    Taking into account the large number of population bottleneck events thereafter, such as famines, plagues etc., you will realise that the number of potential ancestors will reduce – since some blood lineages will die out entirely – and of those alive in the 1300s say, a sizeable proportion would be nobody’s ancestor.

    The conclusion is simply that if we go far enough back in time we share ancestry several times over with those who now live, not only in these islands but in Europe too.( Another question along these lines is – if you could time travel back to Ancient Rome and found yourself in the forum, how many of those people there would be ancestors of everyone alive in Europe now? The answer is – roughly half would be everyone’s ancestor and the other half would be no one’s ancestor.)

    Makes all ideas of national purity a bit pointless really doesn’t it? Surely even right-wing bigots would find such a simple arithmetical exercise salutary? Or not….

  3. Great and fascinating piece, Al but we’re these islands really “violent dark and bleak” before Rome and it’s “civilising influence” arrived?
    I fear that may itself be a myth promulgated by those who seek to advocate Imperial Colonialism.

    • alharron says:

      I’m more thinking that the entire age – Rome & other classical civilizations included – was violent, dark, and bleak, simply in terms of mortality.

  4. Penguin says:

    So the Romans described these dark little gnomes as being like Spanish personages and yet the PC Virtue signallers have turned them into a full blown negro black. Colour me surprised!

    Could anybody explain how a race of black-black people who lived in underground houses could possibly survive for very long in northern Europe before dropping dead from vitamin D deficiency?

    • alharron says:

      You’ll have to ask the people that made the reconstruction. It seems evident that a lot changed over the next few thousand years.

    • You lost me at “PC virtue signallers”. Shame you destroyed what might have been a debatable point with a throwaway right wing soundbite.

    • JGedd says:

      Your remark about the desciption of the natives of the British isles by the invading Romans has doubtful relevance since the Romans arrived thousands of years after Cheddar man. As alharron has said, much could have changed in the interim.

      Personally, I find it intriguing that our ancestors are so diverse and shared many times over by everyone else. As a pasty red-haired person I fully accept that most of my ancestors would not look like me. Due to re-combination, far in the future, should I still have descendants alive then, it is perfectly possible that they would not carry any of my genes.

      There is no problem here. Evolution is driven by mutational change + environmental change. 10,000 years is enough time to effect such a change in skin colour from Cheddar man to me, say.

      He was also unable to digest milk, by the way – another mutational change that happened between Cheddar man and most of the present day European population. This mutational change had occurred long before the time of the Romans, by the way.

  5. Christine says:

    Vitamin D deficiency certainly did affect ancient peoples, and traces of that have been found in skeletal remains. However, Vitamin D is found in fish, liver, roots, and plant oils – all of which were eaten by early man. The question is not how did they survive. It’s merely a case of surviving long enough to breed, and evolve in a way which gives us a better ability to process the Vitamin D available from sunlight.

What're your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.