Thursday, 16 August 2012

Who do you think you are? By Sue Purkiss

Cheddar Gorge

Nine thousand years ago, a young man was buried near the entrance of a cave in Cheddar Gorge. He and his people were hunter gatherers: reindeer, boar and wild horses roamed over the Mendips at the time, and berries and nuts would have been plentiful. Archaeological evidence found in the cave strongly suggests that he and his tribe were cannibals. He died violently, from a blow to the head, but whether he was murdered, or killed in some sort of ritual, or whether his death was the result of an accident, is uncertain. He really was a very silent witness. Or so it seemed...

His skeleton was discovered in 1903. The oldest complete skeleton to have been found in Britain, it's in the Natural History Museum now, but a replica allows you to see how he looked when he was found; curled up, his head turned upwards, gazing at those who gaze at him, wondering perhaps who these strangers are.

But fifteen years ago, by the strangest of chances, something happened which showed that he is not so alone after all - that, in fact, he has a relative, a direct descendant, living within a couple of miles of his ancestral cave. He has family.

It happened like this.

In 1997, a programme on archaeology in Somerset was being made. It occurred to someone that it might just be possible to to extract DNA from Cheddar Man, as the skeleton was fondly known. And so it proved. Mitrochondrial DNA  - which is inherited through the maternal line - was found in one of the skeleton's tooth cavities. The next step was to take DNA from some contemporary inhabitants of the village, and compare the two. Perhaps something might be learned - anyhow, it would make good television.

Adrian and his ancestor
It was agreed that samples should be taken from a randomly chosen class at the local secondary school. On the day, someone was away - so the teacher agreed to make up the numbers. As it happened, he was a history teacher, named Adrian Targett.

Soon, that name was to become known all round the world. Because unbelievably, it turned out that Adrian was a direct descendant of Cheddar Man. Think of it: Christ lived 2000 years ago; 2500 years before that, the Egyptians were building the Great Pyramid. 4500 years before that, Cheddar Man hunted on the Mendips. And through all those centuries, all those long years from the stone age to the silicon age, the line from him to Adrian continued unbroken. (Though Adrian himself moved to Cheddar when he got the job at the school - he actually came all the way from Bristol, eighteen miles away. Which makes the chance that he should have been tested even more of a fluke.)

According to Charles Arthur, writing in The Independent on 8th March 1997: 'The link between Cheddar Man and Adrian Targett easily outstrips the existing record for distant ancestors. The oldest previously recorded relative was the great-great-great-great grandfather of Confucius, who lived in the 8th century BC. Two of Confucius' 85th lineal male descendants today live in Taiwan.' Adrian's lineage is incomparably more venerable than that of the royal family.

Adrian was immensely tickled to find how close he was living to his family's ancestral home. He had a fantastic time after the discovery: he was interviewed for newspapers and TV all over the world. And ever since, of course, he's become Cheddar Man to his pupils (two of whom were my sons). I thought of all this when I bumped into him the other day. But there is more.

Up until this discovery, the accepted truth was that modern Europeans were descended, not from the ancient  hunter gatherers, but from farmers who had left the Middle East in a 1066-like wave 6000 years ago, arriving in Britain several hundred years later. But now this seems not to be the case: Adrian cannot be the only person to have descended from the hunter gatherers. So that assumption was probably wrong: how many other huge historical assumptions have been similarly mistaken?

So - lessons? Question assumptions, no matter how entrenched they are. Truth, yet again, is proven to be much more far-fetched than fiction. Family endures. And your ancestors - and mine - may very well be cannibals...

11 comments:

Caroline Lawrence said...

Wow, Sue, what a mind-boggling story. And you tell it so well. Imagine tracing your ancestor back 9000 years! Thank you for sharing this.

Katherine Langrish said...

And long, long before Stonehenge (unless you count the massive wooden posts on the site that date to 8000 BC.) Sue, this story gives me a shiver down the spine. What a sense of belonging to the place Adrian Targett must feel! I wonder if the cannibalism may have been ritual, honouring the dead rather than desecrating them? But who knows.

Sue Purkiss said...

Yes, Kath, I think that's quite a favoured theory. They've found skulls shaped into bowls, belonging to children as well as adults - so they think this may well have been a way of honouring the dead. Thanks for the detail about Stonehenge - it really is difficult to imagine 9000 years, isn't it? Helpful to have points of comparison.

frances thomas said...

Sadly, if it's mitrochondrial DNA, he'll be the last in this particular line of descendants

Susan Price said...

Not if he has sisters, who've had children, Frances - it would march on into the future with them.
Thanks for reminding me of this, Sue. DNA is reviewing quite a lot of history. I was reading recently that the idea that 'the welsh were driven into the west by invading Saxons' isn't borne out by DNA research. It seems that the East/West divide goes back to Britain's earliest inhabitants.
It seems that the 'African diaspora' came up through Europe in two ways. One crossed to Britain from somewhere near Spain, and colonised the West - the other crossed from somewhere in Denmark or Germany (across the land bridge) and colonised the East. Stone Age people tended to hug the coast, because marshes were full of food: birds, eels, fish etc.

Penny Dolan said...

Cheddar Sir? Such a remarkable tale, Sue, especially with the Stonehenge time point that Kath's added. The West/East UK DNA studies of poulation movement sound fascinating too - where was the article?

As for such skulls? They remind me of the imprisoned Wayland Smith sending the king his gift of two drinking cups made from the skulls of the proud young princes.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks, Sue and everyone - yes, it's really interesting how the mapping of DNA is changing ideas about who and where we came from.

Joan Lennon said...

What a great story!

Sarah said...

Wow, makes me glad I've had a child to pass my DNA on

Sue Bursztynski said...

I read about this in the papers when it happened. It's a fascinating story - and you KNOW this guy! Wow! Living history.

Sue Purkiss said...

Yes - it gave him a lot of kudos as a history teacher!