Why does ‘Whitehawk Woman’ have dark skin?

Since the opening of our Elaine Evans Archaeology Gallery last month, some people have queried why the facial reconstruction of ‘Whitehawk Woman’ has dark skin. Below is an explanation of some of the research and advice that supported the creation of this reconstruction.

Photo showing reconstructed head and neck of Neolithic woman. She has dark skin, black hair and plays with a necklaceBrighton’s ancestors are central to the interpretation of the Royal Pavilion & Museum’s new archaeology gallery which opened to the public on 26 January 2019. The remains of five individuals are displayed alongside facial reconstructions created by a forensic artist.

During the research phase in the run up to the opening of the gallery, the human remains were studied by a number of scientists across several scientific disciplines.

All of our individuals were included in a project based at the Natural History Museum in London, which aimed to establish and interpret information about our European ancestors from ancient DNA. The same team of scientists released results of research to the public in 2018 about ‘Cheddar Man’, a ten thousand year old modern human from the Mesolithic Period, whose ancient DNA demonstrated that he was dark skinned.

While DNA could not be retrieved from Whitehawk Woman, the ‘Cheddar Man’ team advised that she would probably have had dark skin of a southern Mediterranean/Near Eastern/North African colour, brown hair and brown eyes. This is based on the genetic analysis of ancient individuals dating to the Neolithic from around Europe as well as from Britain specifically. This information was passed on to our forensic artist who included it within the facial reconstruction on display in the new gallery.

The same analysis produced predictions of lighter skin for other individuals included in the gallery and these predictions were also included in their facial reconstructions.

In each instance where ancient DNA was not recoverable from our individuals, we followed the same scientific advice on likelihood of their physical characteristics.

10 Responses

  1. Evan Bartlett

    Your explanation is not very helpful with regards to this question, because it doesn’t negate the fact that the reconstruction is not based on any genetic evidence or reliable science. It goes against all evidence on Neolithic European farmers looked like in terms of skin complexion. It is already widely known that the Neolithic farmers in Europe were the first ones to introduce light skin to the continent. Facial reconstructions have already been done, based on actual Neolithic EEF (Early European Farmer) remains of a girl in Greece dating to circa 7,000 BC, the closest in time and place to the original Anatolian farmer population. This woman was clearly shown to have much lighter skin, the somewhat “olive” complexion found in all Mediterranean populations who largely descend from these Neolithic farmers, such as the Sardinians who today are still almost genetically identical to them. They are much lighter skinned than this reconstruction. The reconstruction of the remains of Oetzi the Iceman, another Neolithic farmer of the period, was also shown to have very light skin.

    There is simply zero evidence to support the very dark complexion of Whitehawk Woman used in this reconstruction. Even the facial features have little empirical evidence as support. Every population that today genetically descends mostly from the Neolithic Mediterranean farmers of the Natufian culture, of whom the Anatolian farmers descend, has much lighter complexions of an “olive” like to very light brown to white colouration, whether Greeks, Turks, Levantines, Assyrians, North Africans, Italians, Iberians, Sardinians, etc.

  2. J.P.A.R.

    I have to agree with Evan. This Neolithic woman is presumably not from the same Hunter Gatherer ancestry as Cheddar Man but is one of the later ‘farmers’ with Near Eastern origins. The explanatory note actually mentions her probably having a complexion like that of ‘southern European, Near Eastern or modern North African’ populations, and yet the reconstruction has a far darker tone than people do in any of these places (yes, even including North Africa.)

  3. John Kane

    This certainly requires additional information about the genetic evidence. What is someone from the equator doing in Britain? They certainly didn’t evolve there like European descendants. This, and it seems very apparent, is some sort of an attempt to white wash history and push a narrative of dark skinned peoples being an inherent part of Britain’s cultural heritage, identity, and past. Much like how cheddar man is. What is presented without evidence can, and should be, dismissed.

  4. sEEyOUiNtEA

    Some people got their undies in a twist because a suggestion of dark skin. OOOh, anything but that! Armchair forensic anthropologists, UNITE!

  5. Mat

    The Ireland Ballynahatty neolithic sample seems to bear the modern derived alleles for most of the key markers for light skin. Sure some neolithic people could have been of an intermediate complexion, but this reconstruction much like Cheddar man is propaganda which is a shame as I thought the exhibition was good overall. The reconstructions are for the most part very impressive.

  6. Roy

    Propaganda for what exactly ? The thought that people may have had non-white skin hardly seems a massive propaganda blow to anything. Having seen the exhibition, at the time it didn’t even occur to me that the skin was different.

    • Mathew

      I think the main idea behind it was to have their own ‘Cheddar man’, for obvious anti-Brexit, pro multiculturalism reasons? And being in Brighton is that any surprise to you?

  7. Ygor-C.

    The text says: “the ‘Cheddar Man’ team advised that she would probably have had dark skin of a southern Mediterranean/Near Eastern/North African colour, brown hair and brown eyes.”

    Not exactly a good explanation for how she looks, then. If the team’s advice was that she should’ve looked like Near Easterners and Mediterraneans, then she should look like many other reconstructions of Neolithic European people (who we know had mostly Anatolian origins), that is, a woman with olive skin, not the very pale white of modern British people, but still the definitely light, though tanned and slightly more brownish, skin complexion of many modern Sicilians, Sardinians, Lebanese and Syrians. But the reconstruction of “Whitehawk woman” depicted her as dark as many South Indians and Ethiopians. Very, very unlike the usual skin complexion of Mediterranean and Near Eastern people. Has the team of artists that reconstructed her face ever seen Mediterranean people native to Lebanon, Algeria or Turkey? They’re definitely not that dark at all. This reminds me of those ludicrous 19th century ideas of racist Northern Europeans who claimed that “Africa begins south of Rome”, lumping everyone together as the “same thing, they’re all dark non-white people”.

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