At Bohemianmojo we like to celebrate magical connections to the past – what we like to call ‘smoke from the flames of history - as much as we feel our duty to cast a critical eye over current events and controversies be it in the environment or the world of food. This week I’m going to reach back into my career as a journalist again to share what was probably one of the most awe-inspiring stories I have ever covered. On the face of it this is the tale of a man and one of his ancestors, but it truly represents a window into another world.
It was the morning of Friday, March 7th, 1997. I was a staff correspondent for the Daily Express at the time and I had an early call from my News Editor asking me to head for a cave in Somerset. Journalism is filled with such off the wall requests so I expressed no surprise and simply asked what the job was about.
“HTV (a West Country television station) are going to make an announcement about a documentary they’re producing,” said my boss, “They say it’s going to be a big story but the strange thing is they’re going to do the press conference in one of the caves in Cheddar Gorge. And that’s it. No more information. They say all will be revealed. It’s a quiet news day so take a look at it would you Al?”
It wasn’t a bad assignment, at the very minimum I was happy to be driving through the spellbinding landscape of Somerset’s Mendip Hills in the sunshine of an unusually dry month of March. I reckoned I’d get to Cheddar with about half an hour to spare before the event began but little did I realise I was heading straight of into a story that was to change my view of life forever.
A couple of hours later a press officer was shepherding me through the gates at the entrance to Gough’s Cave, one of the top tourist attractions in the world famous Cheddar Gorge complex. And it didn’t take me many minutes to work out that the eerily lit space at the entry to the cavern was crammed with archaeologists.
One of them was crazy-haired, idiosyncratic Professor Mick Aston, one of the British public’s most familiar scientific faces thanks to the ground breaking archaeological series Time Team. Mick, sadly missed since his death in 2013, was wearing one of his trademark, rainbow coloured woollen jumpers and when I asked he said he was just as much in the dark, literally and figuratively, as the rest of us.
The press conference opened with the usual introductions of key players including the Natural History Museum’s world famous expert on ancient man, Professor Chris Stringer. Then the lead researcher, Dr Bryan Sykes, explained the background and what his team, from Oxford University’s Institute of Molecular Medicine, had set out to discover.
The entrance to Gough’s Cave is the source of the River Yeo, which is one of the longest subterranean streams in England. However when it surfaces in Cheddar Gorge it only runs for three miles or so before it joins the River Axe, which then flows into the Bristol Channel near the town of Burnham.
Gough’s Cave itself is of huge archaeological interest because in its mouth, just above the spot where the Yeo bubbles to the surface, the skeleton of a young man reckoned to be in his 20’s had been found in 1903. That’s the famous Cheddar Man himself, the oldest complete skeleton ever found in the UK.
A number of other human remains have been found in the Gough’s Cave but they are all 5000 years older than Cheddar Man. He was a young man who’d died a violent death, some 9000 years ago and had blunt trauma wounds to his head. Some of his flesh had been butchered off his long bones; evidence of cannibalism.
So far so good but this was all knowledge already within the public domain and then Dr Sykes pulled the rabbit out of the hat when he outlined exactly what the team had been doing. Incredibly they’d been able to isolate some DNA samples from one of Cheddar Man’s teeth.
Back then in 1997 that concept was completely off the scale as most of us lay men and women believed samples could only be taken from relatively fresh biological material. We’d become more or less used to crimes being solved by DNA matches and a recent first had been the solving of a murder in the UK with genetic material. But DNA from 9000 year old Cheddar Man, this was something that ignited the imagination.
Dr Sykes went on to tell how the team had wondered if they could find a match for Cheddar Man in the area where he’d lived and died? They’d hit on the idea of going to the local comprehensive school, The King of Wessex, to start their search. There they’d taken cheek swabs from fifteen pupils and five adults, all from old Cheddar families. At this point the school’s history master Adrian Targett was introduced as the person who was officially representing The King of Wessex. Adrian coyly put his hand up and said hello.
It was then that Dr Sykes announced they had indeed found a direct match on the mitochondrial (female) lineage between one of the samples taken at the school and Cheddar Man. He paused for dramatic effect, he didn’t have too as the air was alive with drama, and then said, “Cheddar Man’s sample directly matches the mitochondrial DNA of Mr Adrian Targett who is, as you’ve heard, the school’s history master.”
I turned to look at the History Man who was registering complete surprise at this turn of events and his look plainly said he was nowhere near the point where he might compute the odds of this serendipitous connection. And at that moment I felt the hairs on the back of my neck go up. I was completely thrilled by what I’d just heard and looked around at my surroundings. I was in the mouth of a cave where clans had sheltered in the millennia after the Ice Age, a place where they’d camped for the seasonal hunt for wild horses coming down the Gorge from the Mendips to the winter grazing on the wetlands.
And unbelievably I was sharing that space with a man whose ancestor had been one of those hunter-gatherers. A space where the unknown events surrounding his brutal death had played out just a few paces away. Who knows why he’d been murdered and eaten but I could feel the electricity of that time still crackling in the cool air of Gough’s Cave. It’s also true to say that my life change quite dramatically in that moment. A passion for pre-history that I’d had as a youngster was re-ignited within me and has happily remained with me since taking me, body and soul, on new journeys of exploration.
A voice in the shadows brought me back to the moment as Adrian Targett spoke. “I’m overwhelmed and completely surprised,” he was saying, “I was literally just about to say that I hope it’s not me.”
Later, when we had the opportunity to chat individually to all the players in this extraordinary drama I asked Adrian, where his family origins lay. Was he from a Cheddar family?
“Not really” he said, “I gave a sample because, well, I’m the history teacher and I was making up the numbers. But the fact is Cheddar Man’s relatives didn’t travel very far during those 9000 years. I was brought up twenty miles away in Bristol.”
I remember trying to form the words I needed to write my piece and finding it uncharacteristically difficult because I wanted so badly to do justice to that wonderful revelation in Gough’s Cave. In the end I came up with an expression that went something like ‘Adrian Targett’s lineage pre-dates great religions and dwarfs royal dynasties.’
And in a sign of how wonderful a story which reached across and bridged ten millennia seemed at the time the editor ran it as our ‘splash’ story, the Front Page lead of the paper Adrian, a self-effacing, very pleasant man was aged forty-two at the time and to this day there’s still interest in the sheer romance of his ancestry. Adrian, now sixty two and retired, was an only child and has no offspring but he doubts the lineage ends with him and feels certain there are others out there who genes go back to Cheddar Man.
Magazine pieces appear now and then, the occasional TV documentary too until in February 2018 some fresh, advanced DNA analysis of Cheddar Man carried out by University College London emerged and caused quite a stir. It was suggested he’d had blues eyes, dark hair and had been black a ‘fact’ which was lauded as great news by those pushing a multi-cultural agenda who used it to take an unwarranted dig at British nationalism.
Quite how ‘Cheddar Man was Black’ became the headline is something of a mystery particularly as the lead genetic scientist who’d analysed the DNA felt she had to correct that and came out saying she had absolutely no way of identifying skin colour from the samples. Perhaps it had been the result of wishful thinking by politically correct university officials. Who knows?
However there was also a new facial reconstruction of Cheddar Man’s features reckoned to be as accurate as the latest scientific techniques could possibly portray. The photographs below, kindly provided by my friends at the excellent South West News Service, shows the quite astonishing family likeness between the two relatives across many thousands of generations. Adrian and Cheddar are literally peas in a pod and I confess the sight of them side by side rekindled my delight in this wonderful story.
There is one discordant note in all this though however and that’s the fact that no-one involved in the unveiling of the new facial reconstruction at the Natural History Museum had the forethought or good manners to tell Cheddar Man’s only living relative it was happening. He should have been the guest of honour of course.