Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Cheddar Man

I have not read the Wiki, but I link to it for those who want more. Here I am only interested in a minor episode in Cheddar Man's scientific history. Hanging around on with tedious entries sends the mind in odd directions, and I was remembering a popularised incident.  There was a BBC production, light on science, heavy on the speculation and exclamation points, that brought in a geneticist of some sort - I'm almost sure it was Bryan Sykes, though I thought he had higher standards* - to get blood samples of those nearby and see if they were similar to the man in the cave. They took blood from local schoolchildren and got their mtDNA, their mother-to-daughter Seven Daughters of Eve bit of genetics, and compared it to Uncle Cheddy's.  I threw that affectionate familial description on purpose, because that was exactly what the BBC was looking for, science be damned. Cheddar Man was a U5, and two of the students were exact U5 variants as well.  They didn't want to publish their names because of privacy concerns. (Then why did they involve them in the first place?) One of the teachers had another U5 variant, but close enough. They tried to sell this as evidence that the teacher was some descendant, not necessarily of ChM exactly, but of that tribe.  Pretty close, y'know?

The idea was to show continuity, that people pretty much get into a good spot and stay there for ever, and there will always be an England.  Even though the name "England" dates from only one thousand years ago, not nine thousand like Cheddar. Stonehenge is only halfway back to this guy, and even those guys are mostly gone now. The persistence of mtDNA lines comes from the tendency of invading peoples, whether violently and quickly, or out-competing by having more food or better hair, the keep the women while pushing the men out as much as possible.  Cheddar Man's y-chromosome is not likely found by anyone nearby.

Continuity is a fun idea, and popular, and not completely untrue, but it is wildly overpredicted. There are plenty of people in America who are U5, plenty of North Africans and West Eurasians.  No one is saying they are descended from a guy in a cave near Bristol. The local teacher's ancestory, if we could trace his maternal line, is almost vanishingly unlikely to have been consistently in that region for 9000 years.

Why is this idea of extended continuity popular to us now?  Has it always been popular? I am not qualified to answer either of those verty separate questions, but I feel confident of part of it.  There is a strong prejudice among anthropologists (I hear this is changing) that it is modern civilised man who has introduced violence and warfare, which existed only as low-level violence in earlier peoples. This requires a belief that those earlier people did not regularly wipe each other out. Marija Gimbutas fed this idea with a culturally very popular idea in the 1970s that the warlike Indo-Europeans pushed out a more peaceful matriarchal European culture with cool goddesses. I don't mean to kick too hard.  Gimbutas has been proved out in many ways, and it does seem to be true that the Indo-Europeans were more warlike and did overrun Europe at least partly by military strength. It wasn't mostly superior pottery and better abs bringing in the women.  Though they did have horses, and chicks do dig horses, so there is that.

But that was only a matter of degree.  Cheddar Man died from a severe weapon-blow to the head.


Unknown said...

According to, Francis Pryor (I think), shortly after Stonehenge was completed, there was a collapse, a contraction of the agricultural landscape and of the population. Lots of theories, don't know if there is a consensus. But then shortly after the contraction, came the Beakers. Those involved in the Beaker DNA survey are hypothesizing a 90% replacement of the Neolithic European farmers. That's pretty staggering. Beakers are presumed to have initially originated in Central Asia and brought horses, wagons, early metallurgy, Indo-European languages, lactose tolerance, a greater emphasis on individuality and caste, plague and greater resistance to plague. I think the DNA surveys of ancient remains are the most exciting development in archeology and anthropology, thanks to the amazing reduction in cost. The latest survey out of ancient Iberria is even more telling. It looks like almost total IndoEuropean male replacement. Like, a commenter said, I think on West Hunter or Razib Khan, explain a plague that only kills male farmers.

james said...

I've complained that "cosmopolitan" == "homeless". Maybe other people feel that way, and want some kind of connection they can point to. Americans have to look a number of generations back. Europeans would have an easier time of it.

When you stop and think about it, it seems rather odd that in PC-world everybody is supposed to be the same, just socialized differently, but somehow the descendants of those Beaker folk are uniquely bad.