Essential Wessex: The Earliest Human Settlements

Kents Cavern, a mile and a half northeast of Torquay, is notable for being the site of a fossilised human upper jawbone which has been radiocarbon dated to the Upper Pleistocene era. It is the oldest Homo sapiens fossil to be found anywhere in northwestern Europe. Also discovered on the same site were the fossilised remains of now-extinct species such as cave bears, Pleistocene wolves, cave hyenas and sabretooth cats.

Another prominent site of early human settlement in Wessex is Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge. Here, in 1903, Britain’s oldest complete human skeleton was found. Known as Cheddar Man, the skeleton dates back to the Mesolithic period. A DNA test connected the skeleton to a local history teacher. This was represented as showing the schoolteacher to be a direct descendant of Cheddar Man, but this is an oversimplification. The presence of mDNA of the same haplotype is not in itself proof of descent.

A reconstruction displayed in the Natural History Museum (photo above by Werner Ustorf) shows Cheddar Man as having dark skin–due to not yet having evolved the lighter skin normally found in colder climes, which helps the body manufacture vitamin D in places with less sunlight–and blue eyes.

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