Cheddar Man man exposes 19th Century ideas of race in modern Britain

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The backlash against proof that the first Brit was black tells us as much about modern British identity as it does history, says Kimberly McIntosh

A new discovery by scientists at the Natural History Museum about the Cheddar Man – the oldest complete skeleton in Britain – is big news. Researchers University College London (UCL) using DNA analysis, found he had ‘dark to black’ skin, curly hair and blue eyes.

It doesn’t just give us valuable new insights into who we once were but also who we are. The idea that Britain was monolithic, ethnically ‘pure’, white Anglo-Saxon nation has once again been exposed as bunk.

But this isn’t the first time the idea of an all-white linear story from King Alfred, self-styled first King of the Anglo-Saxons, to the docking of Empire Windrush been challenged.

The Runnymede Trust’s multi award-winning history project – Our Migration Story – a collaboration with the University of Manchester and Cambridge highlights further evidence of the black presence in Britain. Migration during the Roman Empire brought the Ivory Bangle Lady from her ancestral North Africa to Northern Britain, where her grave was discovered in 1901 in Sycamore Terrace York.

Nine skeletons from the Early Modern period found in the Ipswich cemetery are likely to have come from sub-Saharan Africa and the Ipswich Man skeleton descending from North Africa. The Domesday Abbreviato, a shortened version of the Domesday Book, has a man of African descent illustrated on a page summarising the King’s property in the region. He likely came as a labourer or guest during the Crusades.

But it’s not just these new historical discoveries that are revealing, the backlash to them reveals how tied British identity is still tied to 19th Century ideas of racial purity and superiority.

When the BBC made a cartoon to educate schoolchildren about life in Roman Britain that included a high ranking black officer, the social media criticism was fierce.

Despite Professor and public historian Mary Beard citing evidence of the black presence in Roman Britain she was branded a part of the “politically correct Gestapo” by critics. How proponents of racial purity respond to the cognitive dissonance the new Cheddar Man discovery may bring them, will tell us as much about history as modern British identity.

Kimberly McIntosh is policy officer for the Runnymede Trust

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