Last night Channel 4 aired the documentary on the genome sequencing and facial reconstruction of Cheddar Man, the 8,000BCE mesolithic skeleton discovered in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge a century ago. It was interesting and well done, though of course the “Hey Presto” effect of unveiling the reconstruction was lost because his photo has been splashed over every newspaper and TV channel for the last fortnight.
The big shock horror news item, matched by some of the build-up in the documentary, was that Cheddar man was very dark-skinned. “I think members of the public will be surprised” said one of the researchers. But nobody has mentioned that well-read members of the public were not, since it has been known for some time that the genetic recipe for light skin only evolved about 8,000 years ago in the Near East – at least as far as British populations go, for light skin existed in extreme Northern Europe long before. See this interesting 2015 summary.
So the research, stripped of its hype, only confirmed what was already likely – that Cheddar man came from the dark-skinned western European population-type which (even in that 2015 article) was known to exist in Spain, Luxembourg and Hungary at that time. Thus it shows that skin colour is more ornamental than adaptive: like the Shulammite woman in Song of Songs, Cheddar Man was dark but comely.
None of that stopped either the British press, or posters on BioLogos, making jokes about how it was one in the eye for the Far Right BNP that the earliest Britons were black, and how some US children’s books about cave-men had got it right by having a (token)
African-American black character.
It’s sad to me that all such banter, well-meant though it is, only serves to perpetuate a discredited and outdated concept of “race” which really ought simply to be allowed to sink into history. Yet it’s perpetuated by the very efforts made to “stamp out racism”. Cheddar man, though he was black, was not “a black”. He’d have had to perm his slightly curly hair to have an “Afro”, and he wasn’t a “brown eyed handsome man” after the pattern described by Chuck Berry because he had honky blue eyes – but he wasn’t “a honky”. Neither did he have any more or less “soul” than you. The fact is that his particular “race” no longer exists, though if I’m a typical Brit about 10% of my genome comes from his people, which is more than the amount of “Irish blood” I get from my Roscommon-born great-great-great grandfather, owing no doubt to the founder-effect.
Even at that early date, Cheddar Man was the result of many waves of migration around Europe, Asia and Africa. And there have been many and complex migrations since, one bringing white skin and farming from Anatolia, one bringing the Indo-European tongue from Iran, one bringing the Romans and their cosmopolitan legionaries, another the Anglo-saxons, then the Vikings, then the Normans and so on. My wife is descended from French Huguenots. Those waves are why, in treating the Genesis table of nations as an historical document, it’s not that easy to identify just which radiation of ANE people is represented in the genes and archaeology, but why it’s worth trying. But it does fit the general pattern of the regular mixing of humanity that makes the Genealogical Adam hypothesis so realistic.
So the whole idea of pure races simply doesn’t hold water. This was the main point of the 2002 book by Steve Olson, Mapping Human History, which in showing this historical mixing led directly to the research which (in other hands) underpins Genealogical Adam. Yet only last week my previous employer (the NHS) sent me a survey about my satisfaction with my pension arrangement (it comes in very handy, thankyou), which ended with a rather strange little section asking me intimate details about my preferred gender, sexual orientation and race. This, I suppose, was in order to ensure that all categories were treated equally – which of course we would be if they knew none of that information anyway. But since I know, even without getting my DNA sequenced, that I have a genome comprising European, Near Eastern, African, Iranian and who knows what other genes – for most of which my light skin, (once) light brown hair and friendly grey eyes are not a marker, then any self-identification with an imaginary “ethnicity” is simply perpetuating a lie.
I have told readers here before that I had an obviously “Afro-Caribbean” patient whose twin sister was equally obviously “Anglo-Saxon” – there was a TV programme about them. I gather from the news that a black-white pair of monozygous twins has recently been born somewhere – presumably the difference is epigenetic. Using the term “mixed race” for such families implies that there are races to mix, which there aren’t. This is well proven.
Here’s a close analogy. The evils of Naziism were based on a false Victorian racial theory that the Northern Europeans were the pure descendants of the “Aryan” race (an Iranian/Indian term meaning “noble”), somehow magically endowed aboriginally, or perhaps during migration, with blue eyes, fair hair and the German tongue (just as somehow the biblical Gomer, in migrating to Germany, paradoxically became the English speaking peoples rather than the German speakers!). We all know that “Aryans” were said to be superior to, but threatened by, the Slavs, The Jews and the Negroes, each with their own faults to contaminate the superior race. From Wikipedia:
It was believed in the 19th century that Aryan was also a self-designation used by all Proto-Indo-Europeans, a theory that has now been abandoned. Scholars point out that, even in ancient times, the idea of being an “Aryan” was religious, cultural and linguistic, not racial…
Drawing on misinterpreted references in the Rig Veda by Western scholars in the 19th century, the term “Aryan” was adopted as a racial category through the works of Arthur de Gobineau, whose ideology of race was based on an idea of blonde northern European “Aryans” who had migrated across the world and founded all major civilizations, before being degraded through racial mixing with local populations. Through the works of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Gobineau’s ideas later influenced the Nazi racial ideology which saw “Aryan peoples” as innately superior to other putative racial groups.
Now, with the end of the Second World War, selling the idea of “pure Aryans” became at every level impossible. The theory rightly went down the drain of history with the sewage of the Third Reich. But suppose, by some error, postwar anti-Nazi laws outlawing discrimination were still on the statute book. Suppose it were illegal to discriminate against non-Aryans, and in order to ensure this, suppose that official organisations put out questionnaires asking whether you were an Aryan, a Slav, a Jew or a Negro (or worse, a cross-breed)? Wouldn’t we be right to say that we were perpetuating the lie? Wouldn’t the persistence of those categories only encourage idiots to start standing up for the downtrodden Aryans (or the other groups as “races” with sterotypical characteristics of intelligence, or fecklessness, or whatever)? Wouldn’t it be better for intelligent people to refuse to use categories of “race” at all, and to chastise sorely those who do?
I blame the Americans, of course. Your American is always obsessed by race (and guns, and money). I’m sure it’s the effect of the climate on their racial germ plasm…