Britain’s oldest complete skeleton, discovered in a Somerset cave a century ago, has finally yielded up its secret. DNA sequenced from the inner ear reveals that Cheddar Man was dark-skinned, curly-haired and blue-eyed. The last two characteristics confirm what we already know about elves and fairies, but the first is going to play hell with British mythology. Elrond, Legolas, Oberon and Titania would have to be blacked over now.
Cheddar Man migrated to Britain from Europe about 10,000 years ago, when the island was a peninsula of the Continent. And now, almost single-handedly, he has overturned the traditional notion that colour is related to geography — and therefore, to race. Almost, because it was already commonly accepted that white skin is a relatively new development, no more than 6,000 years old. Next-generation DNA sequencing (seriously, that’s what it’s called) is absurdly cheap and uses multiple parallel reactions to produce results in hours or days, compared to the 13 years that the Human Genome Project took. Earlier, it was impossible to look an ancient human in the eye. Only what could be inferred from their remains and their material culture was known. But now, the shadowy Denisovans of Siberia have been reconstructed from DNA in the finger-bone of a girl who lived 41,000 years ago. Like Cheddar Man, she was dark-skinned.
Having devastated popular depictions of the elven folk, Cheddar Man may also cast his dark shadow on Indian advertising from afar. The colonial hangover that sells fairness creams and whitening agents may give way to clarity when it is learned that the original Briton would have blended into the crowd in Jhansi or Kochi. What is the point of turning white if there’s no originality in it?