The Year in Science: Cheddar Man DNA

History teacher related to 9,000-year-old Cheddar Man, most complete ancient skeleton in Britain.

By Shanti Menon
Jan 1, 1998 6:00 AMMay 9, 2023 2:04 PM


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The village of Cheddar, in the picturesque hills of Somerset in southwest England, is noted, of course, for its cheese; for the caves at Cheddar Gorge; and for Adrian Targett, a history teacher at Kings of Wessex Community School. Targett found out last March that he is related to 9,000-year-old Cheddar Man, the most complete ancient skeleton ever found in Britain.

A local tv company working on a documentary about the historic area had contacted Bryan Sykes, a geneticist at Oxford, to see if he could extract any dna from Cheddar Man. Sykes was interested in comparing the genes of modern Britons to the preagricultural hunter-gatherers of Cheddar Man’s time, so the project suited him perfectly. The producers then asked Targett to find local students willing to be part of the sample modern population. To show his students that the method of dna sampling, a cheek swab, was painless, Targett himself participated.

After analyzing a 400-nucleotide sequence of mitochondrial dna in the samples (from the same control region that was extracted from the Neanderthal Man), Sykes found that Targett and Cheddar Man differed at only one spot. The two must have shared a maternal ancestor, perhaps someone as close as Cheddar Man’s mother. He’s clearly quite closely related, says Sykes. Targett, however, knew nothing of this until the results were revealed to him and his class on camera. It was a bit surprising, he says. The presenter said ‘We have a result,’ and he turned toward me and said ‘and it’s you.’ At least I didn’t say anything that had to be deleted out of the recording.

Finding a match for Cheddar Man wasn’t totally unexpected, says Sykes, who estimates that about 1 percent of the British population carries a similar bit of dna. What’s surprising, but apparently coincidental, is that Targett lives just half a mile from the cave where Cheddar Man was discovered in 1903. I applied for 50 teaching jobs all over the country, and I happened to get the job here, Targett says. He’s never seen the actual skeleton of his ancestor at the British Museum in London (and has no plans to reclaim it), but I’ve become closely acquainted with the replicas, he says, because I keep being asked to be photographed next to them.

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