This week, researchers from the Natural History Museum in London revealed a facial model of a fossilized Stone Age hunter-gatherer who died around what is now the English town of Cheddar, in Somerset — for which he is named “Cheddar Man.”
We don’t (and won’t) know what Cheddar Man’s buddies called him while he was doing his hunting and gathering 10,000 years ago. But DNA sampling taken from his skull has told us plenty of other stuff, including the color of his eyes (blue) and the texture of his hair (curly).
But the most striking we now know about Cheddar Man is that he was black.
Or, to be more accurate and use a less culturally loaded and potentially anachronistic description, he was dark- to black-skinned. Historically, this is not supposed to be surprising: Europeans have only been pale-faced for about six millennia. But of course, it is. The vague assumption most of us here carry over from schooldays is that the “original” Brits were white, then the slave trade, empire and postwar immigration happened, at which point we became less white.
Looking at the reconstructed bust of Cheddar Man asks us to stand all this on its head.
There are not many people with dark skin in Cheddar today: the most recent UK census tells us that in 2011 only 2% of the population of Somerset county, where the village is situated, reported themselves as being BME (black and minority ethnic). The UK average is about 14%. By contrast, more than 94% of Somerset residents in 2011 self-categorized as White British.
It is salutary to realize that at some distant point in the Mesolithic past, all that would have been reversed.
Cheddar Man’s skin color is linked to the fact that he was descended from a population group that migrated to Europe about 14,000 years ago, long before another wave of migration brought lighter-skinned inhabitants. He is, therefore, a posthumous poster boy for the long view on British immigration: a topic that has recently been added to the high school history syllabus with the intention of getting students to understand “how the identity of the people of Britain has been shaped by their interaction with the wider world.”
This is more than just a matter of historical curiosity or educational partiality. Like many other places in the world, Britain today is feverishly absorbed with the issue of immigration. Much of the debate and campaigning leading up to the 2016 Brexit referendum concerned immigration and immigration played on the minds of the majority of those who voted “leave.”
Cheddar is in an area that voted 61.2% to leave. That is, you might say, ironic, because the uncommon appearance of its most ancient known inhabitant reminds us that there is really no such thing as a native Briton, white or otherwise.
There are just a bunch of people who happen to be here, right now.