By Ellen McGirt
Updated: February 7, 2018 4:28 PM ET

Today’s essay is brought to you by the letters D, N and A.

A groundbreaking new genetic analysis on Britain’s oldest complete skeleton has revealed a surprise: The first modern Briton was a black man.

The DNA test on the figure known as “Cheddar Man,” named for the area where his remains were excavated, shows that the 10,000-year-old young man was of dark or black skin, with coarse curly hair and blue eyes. Previous facial reconstructions of the fossil, attempted without DNA, depicted Ched as having much lighter skin.

This has upset quite a few white people.

While the news created quite a stir on social media, most of the real action came from newspaper commentary.

Here’s a (re-publishable) sample from the Daily Mail: “This is why none of our history adds up. Instead of the truth it’s PC madness. Makes you wonder why all the white Australians haven’t slowly started turned into aborigines.” Also, “What’s to say that the person was not a foreign visitor?” And, this: “So like where did all the white people come from?”

That people are alarmed to discover Cheddar Man may be a brother shouldn’t be surprising.

“People define themselves by which country they’re from, and they assume that their ancestors were just like them,” says Alfons Kennis, one of the two expert paleo-artists who made the reconstruction of Ched.

About ten percent of white Britons are descended from Ched’s people, the “Western Hunter-Gatherers” of the Mesolithic-era. Ched looks nothing like them.

Lots of white people find discovering their genetic history to be disorienting. There’s a reason why we’ve yet to see a hapless white fellow on an commercial good-naturedly toss out his lederhosen for a Yoruba oke. The world has come to associate whiteness with superior culture, even if certain individuals don’t actively behave in a racist way.

Newly affordable DNA tests are increasingly triggering race-based anxieties. In one messy case, Police Sgt. Cleon Brown of Hastings Michigan sued for workplace taunting after the results of an ancestry test revealed that his genetic makeup was of 18% African origin. But the city says it was Brown who did the racist joking, which included fried chicken jokes and references to his sexual prowess.

And it’s a particularly interesting time for white supremacists, who are now increasingly requiring new hate group members prove their racial bona fides with a test. The news is often not what they’d hoped.

Two UCLA scientists have spent years studying online conversations about genetic tests on Stormfront, the white nationalist forum. Some posters reject the tests outright – “When you look in the mirror, do you see a Jew? If not, you’re good.” Others believe genetic testing is a Jewish conspiracy to capture DNA to create bioweapons. But others understand that the science is still evolving, the findings are hard to understand, and continue to recruit new believers despite what tests say. “If we believe their politics comes from lack of sophistication because they’re unintelligent or uneducated,” says one of the researchers, “I think we’re liable to make a lot of mistakes in how we cope with them.”

The truth is, we haven’t investigated the genetics behind skin color enough.

This recent Atlantic piece explains the surprising reason why – most genetic information about race comes from only studying people of European descent. (Does that seem racist to you?)

To begin to remedy the problem, another new DNA study, conducted by a team of geneticists from the University of Pennsylvania, focused on a cohort of volunteers from Botswana, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. They found extraordinary genetic variation in their African subjects, and that light skin genetic traits don’t appear to be unique to Europeans. “One of the traits that most people would associate with race—skin color—is a terrible classifier,” says one researcher. “The study really discredits the idea of a biological construct of race. There are no discrete boundaries between groups that are consistent with biological markers.”

We really are all part of the same human soup.

So while the race-anxious continue to cause trouble, the rest of us should welcome Cheddar Man to the global family barbecue, along with the growing body of evidence that can help put irrational arguments about race and social status to rest.

But it’s going to be a bumpy ride.


You May Like