It is more than 20 years since the story broke that first got me interested in Cheddar Man—the hunter-gatherer now dubbed "the first Brit", whose skeletal remains, dating back around 10,000 years to the end of the last Ice Age, were found in 1903 in Cheddar Gorge in Somerset.
I had just started working for the Financial Times, and George Parker, now the newspaper’s political editor, called me to say: “Are you related to the man in the news?” In all the newspapers (although not, as I recall, the FT), there were photos of the man in the news. He was crouching beside some replica skeletal remains (the real ones are housed in the Natural History Museum in London) in a cave in Cheddar Gorge.
I knew why George was asking me. The man in the news was called Adrian Targett, a 42-year-old history teacher. In a pioneering DNA project, led by Bryan Sykes, now emeritus professor of human genetics at Oxford University, scientists succeeded in extracting some DNA from one of Cheddar Man’s teeth (which were in good condition, and suggested a healthy diet) and compared it to the DNA drawn from the saliva of some of Cheddar’s residents. The researchers found that Mr Targett shared some of Cheddar Man’s DNA—they were, in a distant way, related.
I told George: “I don’t think I’m related (at least, not to my knowledge)—but I do like my steaks rare” (which was a joke, but also true).
As it turned out, the DNA extracted from Cheddar Man was mitochondrial DNA, which is passed through the female line. So Mr Targett’s link to the caveman was through his mother’s family—not his father’s. The surname was a red herring (although there is a high concentration of Targetts in the west country). Nevertheless, the story sparked my renewed interest in family history. As a kid, long before the first episode of the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? (which I think is terrific, by the way), I was taking out books on genealogy and “searching for your ancestors” from the local library. I had been fascinated by Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family—which I read after seeing the spectacular miniseries on television in the late 1970s. Sometimes, my enthusiasm was such that I fired off notes to elderly relatives, appealing for information. Bit by bit, I assembled a patchy family tree.
Nowadays, with so many wonderful documents available online, the task of putting together a family tree is much easier. Getting back to the late 1700s—on one side of the family or the other—is not difficult. And very rewarding. But getting back 10,000 years? Wow. The latest extraordinary breakthrough—with scientists from the Natural History Museum and University College London analysing fresh samples of Cheddar Man’s DNA and showing that he had dark skin and blue eyes—brings those far-off times ever closer. Recently, I took a DNA test with Ancestry.com, which claims to track the DNA story of the past 2,000 years. It provided me with a fascinating window into my genetic past—and evidently a long and continuous presence in the British Isles. So perhaps, I can claim some kind of link with Cheddar Man. I can but dream…
The other thing that the Cheddar story sparked was my fascination in origins. And I’ve pursued this in my latest project, New World, Inc—a history of the founding of America. The Pilgrims provide the founding myth of the United States—and the unifying celebration that is Thanksgiving. But, to really understand America today, it is necessary to go further back—to the English merchants and their associates who, for 70 years before the Pilgrims voyaged West, inched their way towards America. Largely forgotten now, they infused America with its defining spirit of entrepreneurship, self-determination and sense of destiny.
For more on New World, Inc: www.newworldincbook.com
For more on Cheddar Man/the first Brit: www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/cheddar-man-mesolithic-britain-blue-eyed-boy.html
For the original Cheddar Man story: www.nytimes.com/1997/03/24/world/tracing-your-family-tree-to-cheddar-man-s-mum.html