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February 6, 2018

The genome of “Cheddar Man” is about to be published

If you are American you have probably heard about “Cheddar Man” in Bryan Sykes’ Seven Daughters of Eve. If you don’t know, Cheddar Man is a Mesolithic individual from prehistoric Britain, dating to 9,150 years before the present. Sykes’ DNA analysis concluded that he was mtDNA haplogroup U5, which is found in ~10% of modern Europeans, and which ancient DNA has found to be overwhelmingly dominant among European hunter-gatherers. But for years there has been controversy as to whether this result was contamination (after all, if it’s found in ~10% of modern Europeans it wouldn’t be surprising if the DNA was contaminated).

Today that is a moot point. On February 18th Channel 4 in the UK will premier a documentary that seems to indicate genomic analysis of Cheddar Man’s remains have been performed, and he turns out to be exactly what we would have expected. That is, he’s a “Western Hunter-Gatherer” (WHG) with affinities to the remains from Belgium, Spain, and Central Europe. These WHG populations were themselves relatively recent arrivals in Pleistocene Europe, with connections to some populations in the Near East, and with unexplored minor genetic admixture from an East Asian population. Their total contribution to the ancestry of modern Europeans varies, with lower fractions in the south of the continent, and the highest in the northeast.

Overall, the consensus seems to be that in Western Europe the genuine descent from indigenous hunter-gatherers passed down through admixture with Neolithic farmers, and then the Corded Ware and Bell Beaker groups, is around ~10%. This is the number that shows up in the press write-ups. But, there are some researchers who contend it is far less than 10%, and that that fraction is misattribution due to early admixture with relatives of these hunter-gatherers as steppe and farmer peoples were expanding.

Phylogenetics aside, one of the major headline aspects of the Cheddar Man is that reconstructions are now of a very dark-skinned and blue-eyed individual. Some of the more sensationalist press is declaring that the “first Britons were black!” As far as the depiction goes, this is literally true. The reconstruction is of a black-skinned individual in the sense we’d describe black-skinned.

But on one level it is entirely expected that this is what Cheddar Man would look like. The hunter-gatherers of Mesolithic Western Europe were genetically homogenous. They seem to derive from a small founder population. And, on the pigmentation loci which make modern Europeans very distinctive vis-a-vis other populations, SLC24A5, SLC45A2 and HERC2-OCA2, they were quite different from anything we’ve encountered before. First, these peoples seem to have had a frequency for the genetic variants strongly implicated in blue eyes in modern Europeans close to what you find in the Baltic region. The overwhelming majority carried the derived variant, perhaps even in regions such as Spain, which today are mostly brown-eyed because of the frequency of the ancestral variant. Second, these European hunter-gatherers tended to lack the genetic variants at SLC24A5 and SLC45A2 correlated with lighter skin, which today in European is found at frequencies of ~100% and 95% to 80% respectively.

The reason that one of the scientists being interviewed stated that there was a “76 percent probability that Cheddar Man had blue eyes” is that they used something like IrisPlex. They put in the genetic variants and popped out a probability. The problem is that the training set here is modern groups, which may have a very different genetic architecture than ancient populations. Recent work on Africans and East Asians indicate that the focus on European populations when it comes to pigmentation genetics has left huge lacunae in our understanding of common variants which affect variation in outcome.

East Asians, for example, lack both the derived variants of SLC24A5 and SLC45A2 common in Europeans but are often quite light-skinned. A deeper analysis of the pigmentation architecture of WHG might lead us to conclude that they were an olive or light brown-skinned people. This is my suspicion because modern Arctic peoples are neither pale white nor dark brown, but of various shades of olive.

As far as blue eyes go, it is reasonable that these individuals had that eye color because that trait seems somewhat less polygenic than skin color. There are darker complected people with light eyes, from the famous “Afghan girl” to the first black American Miss America, Vanessa Williams. The homozygote of the derived HERC-OCA2 variant seems relatively penetrant. From what I recall the literature indicates many people with blue eyes are not homozygotes on this locus for the derived haplotypes, but those who are homozygotes for the derived haplotypes invariably have blue eyes.

Addendum: It isn’t clear in the press pieces, but it looks like they got a high coverage genome sequence out of Cheddar Man. They refer to sequencing, and, they seem to have hit all the major pigmentation loci. This indicates reasonable coverage of the genome.

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