Thursday, April 05, 2007

Continuity in the face of great change - the case of Cheddar Man

Readers of this blog could be forgiven for thinking that I spend my whole time thinking and writing on political issues. Perhaps its time for a change.

I have been reading and enjoying Norman Davies's The Isles: A History, the story of the territory now occupied by the United Kingdom and Ireland.

When I first studied what was then called English history, there is another interesting story in the use of this name, I was struck by the constant waves of invasion. I suppose I assumed, I know that I assumed, that this meant the replacement of one group of people by another, essentially extinguishing the earlier group. We now know that this is not true because of the rather remarkable case of Cheddar Man.

In 1903 the complete skeleton of a human male was excavated from Gough's Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, hence the name Cheddar man. We now know that the remains date to approximately 7150 BCE, at least three thousand years before the advent of agriculture in the area. It appears that he died a violent death, perhaps related to the cannibalism practiced in the area at the time.

In the late 1990s, Bryan Sykes of Oxford University sequenced the mitochondrial DNA of Cheddar Man with DNA extracted from one of Cheddar Man's molars. He then, and this is something that I suspect that I would have regarded as a gimmick, tested the DNA of a sample of twenty residents of the modern Cheddar village. He found two exact matches plus one very close match.

Leaving aside the excitement of the two school children who gave the exact match and probably have the oldest scientifically established family tree in the world, the results show that Cheddar Man's family continued to reside in the same locality for perhaps 350 generations, surviving through all the invasions and changes.

It also made me wonder about the role that DNA testing might play if we could do it in the appropriate way in extending our knowledge of Australia's Aboriginal past.

We know that Aboriginal populations were not static, but shifted over time. We do not really understand those shifts.

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