That the earliest ancestor of our colonial white rulers had dark skin like us should be our new colourism narrative
I want to take you two years back.
February 2018. It was big news in Britain and elsewhere in the West. After trying for years, scientists had finally been able to reconstruct the face of the first British man who died 10,000 years ago.
They found out that the Brit, named Cheddar Man, had dark to black skin, blue eyes, and dark hair.
Perplexed? Brits were, too.
Cheddar Man generated intense discussions in Britain. That the earliest Briton had dark skin threw the widely believed notion of pale-skinned, fair-featured Britishness into question. There was both joy and fury among the public, based on how their idea of Britishness was shaken by the study findings.
"I just wish I knew about you [Cheddar Man] when I was growing up and people asked me where I was 'really' from. North London, bruv," Labour MP David Lammy, who is black and was born to Guyanese parents, tweeted.
Dr Aarathi Prasad, a researcher at the University College London who was born to an Indian mother and a Trinidadian father, wrote, "Thanks to Cheddar Man. I feel more comfortable as a brown Briton."
Mark Thomas, a scientist at the University College London who was in the Cheddar Man research team, said the findings might surprise the public, but not ancient DNA geneticists.
This points to how difference in the level of knowledge affects our perception and understanding of something. The common people without knowledge of history, evolution and anthropology will think whiteness is intrinsically associated with Britishness. Unlike them, scientists will always look for evidence behind any assumption.
Cheddar Man's remains were discovered in a cave in Cheddar Gorge in England's Somerset back in 1903. Without DNA analysis, it was initially assumed that he had quintessentially British features – pale skin and fair hair.
But after the cutting-edge DNA analysis, scientists learned not only how he looked but also aspects of his lifestyle. Once again, science nullified assumptions.
From Middle East to Europe
Cheddar Man lived in Britain in the Mesolithic period, also known as the middle stone age. There were people who had lived before him, but they were wiped out due to unfavourable weather conditions that periodically made Britain uninhabitable.
That is why Cheddar Man is considered the earliest ancestor of modern Britons. He marked the beginning of continuous habitation on the island. He is the oldest British person whose entire genome has been sequenced.
But he was not a native Brit. His DNA analysis found that he had Middle Eastern origin. His ancestors left Africa, moved to the Middle East, and then migrated to Europe after the Ice Age.
He was part of the group of hunter-gatherers whose remains have been found in Spain, Luxembourg and Hungary. Their DNA had already been sequenced. Interestingly, the analysis revealed that they also had dark skin and blue eyes, and were genetically similar to him.
From ancient dark to modern white
The most startling revelation of the Cheddar Man study was his link to modern British ancestry.
Life in Britain at the time was very different from how it is today. Yet, researchers found that the average white Brit today carries around 10 percent of genes of this dark-skinned man. In other words, he is the oldest known British individual with a direct genetic connection to the pale-skinned people living in Britain today.
This leads to the most pressing question: How did modern Brits develop white skin if their earliest ancestor had dark complexion?
According to researchers, the pale skin of today's Europeans is actually a more recent phenomenon than previously thought. It was long assumed that skin lightened as humans had migrated from Africa and the Middle East to Europe around 40,000 years ago.
But a 2015 analysis of the genomes of 83 prehistoric Europeans found that the continent had mixed and diverse people even 8,000 years ago. This means for at least 2,000 years following Cheddar Man's birth, there were non-white people in Europe.
Characteristics commonly associated with modern European people, such as tallness and light skin, became ubiquitous in the continent relatively recently, researchers concluded.
There is debate about the evolution of pale skin in European people, but scientists believe it has to do with the introduction of farming. The first farmers migrated to Britain from the Middle East around 6,000 years ago. Their cereal-based diet was poor and lacked vitamin D, as opposed to the hunter-gatherer folks like Cheddar Man who probably had very healthy diets containing lots of fish and liver that were rich in vitamin D.
Because pale skin absorbs more sunlight required to produce adequate vitamin D, these farmers who lacked the vitamin gradually developed lighter skin. During this process, gene variants of dark skin disappeared.
Finally, when farming was established in Britain, light skin genes absorbed the population group Cheddar Man belonged to. This is so far the most widely cited theory of where the whiteness of today's British people comes from.
In other words, Brits were not inherently white. They evolved as white people.
Yoan Diekmann, a computational biologist at University College London and a member of the Cheddar Man research team, said the connection often drawn between Britishness and whiteness is not an immutable truth.
"It has always changed and will change," he added.
This simple-yet-profound piece of knowledge needs to be entrenched in the minds of the Bangladeshis. That paleness of Brits was not (and will not be) something constant. It was (and will be) a variable.
That the earliest ancestor of our colonial white rulers actually had dark skin like us needs to be ingrained in our psyche too. The onus is on us to make some noise about this in a way that will force every single Bangladeshi to rethink the notion of superiority of fairness in a different light. One way to do that is by constructing a fresh narrative on colourism based on Cheddar Man.
Colourism narrative in 21st century Bangladesh
There are old lessons that we all learned in high school. That the Brits first came to the Indian subcontinent in the 17th century. That they primarily came for trade. That they ruled us for some 200 years.
What they also did was reinforce colourism, an idea thought to have been first introduced by the Aryan people in this region. We learned to associate nobility and superiority with pale skin. At the same time, we learned to perceive dark-skinned people as less worthy and an inferior group belonging to the working class.
Then, 71 years after the British left, the Cheddar Man research revealed that those from whom we had learned to discriminate against skin colour themselves had ancestors with dark complexion. What we had learned to consider undesirable in us is the exact same feature their forebearer shared long ago.
Yet, we continue to disproportionately glorify fair skin in our society. What does that make us? Irrational folks suffering inferiority complex built on the fallacy that fair skin is qualitatively better and is inherently British/European, I would say.
We have so far allowed ourselves to be deeply influenced by the 17th century white Britons who invaded our lands. By doing so, we have chosen to uphold a particular aspect of our British past, while turning a blind eye to the same aspect of theirs, which was revealed in the Cheddar Man study. How that has served the Bangladeshi society until now need not be repeated.
"Cheddar Man changes the way we think about our ancestors," said Robin Mckie, science editor for the Observer and a typical pale-skinned Brit. By the same token, I, as a typical brown-skinned Bangladeshi, say it is about time we included the story of Cheddar Man in our 21st century Bangladeshi narrative on colourism.
Once modern Bangladeshis internalise the anthropological lesson that our imperial rulers descended from someone who had dark skin like us, it will be a giant leap in the fight against the scourge of colourism in our society.