It is depressingly true that much science – for example, of the roots of homo sapiens and thus of humanity – is politicised. Rather than a description of what happened we get things distorted through the lens of what people think should be happening now. So, for example, where and when Homo Sapiens turned up in Europe becomes an almost Whiggish story of how Europeans – white of course – scaled ever greater heights of humanity while other areas remained Neanderthal or even Erect.
Until the mid 20th century, racial scientists insisted that fossil data revealed the superiority of the Caucasian race. In the 1970s, the “out of Africa” theory – the idea that all contemporary humans stem from a small group of H sapiens from east Africa – seemed to provide an objective basis for an anti-racist viewpoint. Our “descent from a recent African root”, the American palaentologist Stephen J Gould wrote, shows that “human unity is no idle political slogan”.
And yet there are still useful modern day lessons to be learned:
When last year a reconstruction of a skeleton discovered in 1903 in the Cheddar Gorge suggested that “Cheddar Man” had dark skin, some suggested that “we may have to rethink some of our notions of what it is to be British”. The story of human origins no more tells us about equality now than the 10,000-year-old Cheddar Man speaks to contemporary Britishness. Appropriating the past to fight the battles of the present inevitably distorts both the past and the present.
That Cheddar Man was a darkie isn’t an odd or unusual insistence. We know that Whitey – pale skin that is – evolved more than once in response to those evolutionary pressures. We still see the reason why in modern populations too. Those darker skinned of our fellow Britons really do need more time out in the sunshine and fresh air in order to get the Vitamin D levels up and thus avoid rickets. Cultural practices like swathing the distaff side in voluminous robes don’t help here.
But Cheddar Man, his lesson for us? Well, the indigenous British population of which he was a member was entirely wiped out by subsequent immigrants. We’ve really pretty much no DNA of the Mesolithic population among us. Not even along the lines of the female derived mitochondrial. That population was entirely replaced by the Neolithic arrivals, the Celts.
Which is an interesting lesson for today, isn’t it? Beware of immigration because they might wipe you out perhaps? Or, even, don’t let the Welsh over the border?