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Briton Is Kin of Stone Age 'Cheddar Man'

Science: DNA test shows history teacher is direct descendant of 9,000-year-old skeleton.

March 09, 1997|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — After he was killed by a blow to the face about 9,000 years ago, the 23-year-old hunter was laid to rest in a limestone cave in what is now southwestern England.

Now, say scientists astonishingly bridging 90 centuries and 300 generations, they have found a direct descendant of the Stone Age man.

He lives half a mile from the burial site and teaches history.

"I've been in the cave a few times, but I never realized it was home," 42-year-old Adrian Targett told The Times on Saturday, still good-naturedly coming to terms with astonishment--and an unexpected instant of fame.

What started as part of a local television special about archeology is ending as the second nudge at the frontiers of science by British researchers in as many weeks.

In the quickening scientific universe, tomorrow and yesterday converge. Say hello, Dolly, you futuristic cloned sheep, to Cheddar Man, you tales-telling, millenniums-spanning skeleton.

"I'm overwhelmed. I couldn't believe it," Targett said of learning that DNA tests had identified him as a direct descendant (on his mother's side) of Britain's oldest complete skeleton, found in the cave near Cheddar village. The atmosphere in the cave in the cheese-famous Somerset region of Britain helped preserve the skeleton, which was discovered by workers digging a drain in 1903.

"I'm a history teacher. But I teach modern history, so Cheddar Man's a bit out of my period. I have to admit that I knew next to nothing about him," said Targett, who is now learning in a hurry after finding himself on every front page in Britain on Saturday.

His ancestor, now on display at the Natural History Museum in London, drew the attention of TV producers preparing a documentary on archeology in Somerset.

Would it be possible to extract Cheddar Man's DNA, they wondered?

Scientists from the museum and from Oxford University found that despite the skeleton's great age, it was possible to extract mitochondrial DNA from a tooth cavity in the skeleton.

Mitochondrial DNA, which is found in parts of the cells used for generating energy, is inherited unchanged down the maternal line. It is easier to recover from ancient bones than nuclear DNA, which carries genes from both mothers and fathers, scientists say.

After months of research, the scientists charted the old hunter's genetic makeup. Then came the for-the-fun-of-it detective work.

Scientists and a camera crew appeared one day at Kings of Wessex school in Cheddar, which is no stranger to archeology: It is built amid the ruins of a Saxon palace.

"They wanted to take DNA samples from some of the students whose families had lived longest in the area," Targett said. "I gave a [cheek swab] sample too, just to encourage the children and to make up the numbers."

In all, about 20 samples were taken, Targett recalled. His family has lived in the area at least since the mid-19th century, Targett said, but he moved to Cheddar only coincidentally after he began teaching there 20 years ago.

When the results were in at Oxford, the DNA had conclusively shown Targett to be a direct descendant of Cheddar's cave man.

"It is not a perfect match," Oxford's Bryan Sykes told reporters. "One base pair--that is, one letter of the genetic alphabet--is different out of 300. But in 9,000 years, we would expect one to change by the normal rates of mutation. So it's a pretty close match."

Targett is an only child, and he and his wife, Katey, have no children. But his mother, who lives in Cheddar, had 12 brothers and sisters, including four sets of twins.

"It's a bit frightening to think that there are all those links across all those generations," Targett said. "But the nice thing is that there are links that are so strong. We are all descended from an ancestor like Cheddar Man. Who knows how many people we are related to and don't know about?"

Targett has emerged from the research with the world's longest lineage, but Oxford researcher Sykes said the odds of finding a genetic match to Cheddar Man were not long, given the relatively small population of Stone Age Britain.

If much of the population of Britain today is descended from the hunter-gatherers of Cheddar Man's time, then many people will bear the imprint of a relative handful of prehistoric mothers. And their children were hunter-gatherers rather than farmers, Sykes told the BBC.

"There has been an idea that most modern Europeans are descended from farmers that came in from the Middle East about 10,000 years ago, reaching Britain about 6,000 years ago," Sykes said. "This kind of evidence shows that is probably not true and that modern Britons are in fact descended from the earlier inhabitants like Cheddar Man who existed on hunting and gathering and who were not farmers."

Cheddar Man may have more secrets to disclose. Scientists say it may be possible to determine the color of his hair and eyes and what diseases he might have had. In the meantime, Adrian Targett will carry an amazing bit of history to history class with him.

Targett, by the way, sings in Cheddar's male choir, plays bassoon in his school's orchestra and is a steam engine buff. He does admit to liking his steaks rare. But he is not a hunter.

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