Evolution and religion: What did Cheddar Man believe in?

One of the very earliest inhabitants of the British Isles was black.

Good; racists who fantasize about a Britain with an aeons-long heritage of blond, blue-eyed Aryan types have yet another historical hurdle to jump. Though apparently his eyes may have been blue.

University College LondonThe face of 'Cheddar Man', Britain's oldest nearly complete skeleton at 10,000 years old.

The information comes from a study by London's Natural History Museum, and University College London. Researchers extracted DNA from the 10,000-year-old Cheddar Man, whose skeleton was discovered in Gough's Cave in the Cheddar Gorge in 1903, and conducted a genome analysis. They found he was around 5ft 5 inches tall and probably died in his early 20s, probably violently. His hair may have been curly and his skin was dark brown or black.

It's a fascinating insight into not just one individual, but a whole group of European migrants who provided about 10 per cent of our genetic ancestry today. But while science can tell us a surprising amount about what these Mesolithic hunter-gatherers looked like, there are vast gaps in our knowledge about how they lived that will probably never be filled.

One question that's likely to occur to thoughtful Christians is, what did they believe? Our own faith, after all, is in a God revealed in a book created over several hundred years in a very small region of a large globe. The earliest parts of it might date back 3,000 years or longer – a very, very long time, but Cheddar Man, at between 7,000 and 8,000 BC, is even older than that. Our very distant ancestors travelled a surprisingly long way, given that they had to walk – the famous Amesbury Archer, buried near Stonehenge in around 2,400 BC, came from the Alps, according to isotope analysis of his teeth – but still: it's a long way from Ur, Abraham's birthplace (which may have been founded in around 3,800 BC), both in time and space. How does what we do on Sunday morning relate to Cheddar Man?

The religious beliefs of prehistoric people are mainly hidden from us. We can make educated guesses based on what they left behind – monuments, barrows, the odd stone artefact – and on a cautious understanding of how religion 'works'. We know they sacrificed, sometimes humans, to placate or influence gods of some kind. They developed, slowly, some sort of idea of an afterlife. They prayed and had rituals for healing – Stonehenge is thought to have been a healing centre, for instance. As English Heritage puts it: 'Certainly there was no single or continuously developed prehistoric belief system. For long periods, however, there were religious practices concerning the dead, their afterlife, and their influence on the living.'

All of this is to say that they were conscious of living in a world they didn't entirely control, and believed that there was a reality – call it a spiritual reality – behind what they could see, touch or hear. This reality could be accessed or influenced in particular ways.

What Christians want to say is that this is fundamentally true; that the shadowy, half-formed ideas of Cheddar Man and his tribe correspond to something real. His distant cousins in the Middle East had the same questions to answer – and out of their thinking and experience over thousands of years, the extraordinary spiritual journey that brought us the Bible began. A secular historian is perfectly entitled to say it was all part of a process of cultural evolution. A believer is perfectly entitled to say that God spoke, to particular people at a particular point in history, in a particular place. The story since then has been one of God's people saying, 'Those "something more" instincts you have, about spirituality and immortality and everything – you're right, and this is what they mean. And by the way, God is love.'

Cheddar Man is not too different from us physically. In what makes him human – the instinctive reaching after eternal significance – he's no different at all.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods

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