With her blue eyes and dark skin, Whitehawk Woman was a second or third generation Briton

Meet Whitehawk Woman

When Swedish sculptor and archaeologist Oscar Nilsson posted a picture of his facial reconstruction of a blue-eyed, dark-skinned, 5,500-year-old Briton on his Facebook page, he was bombarded with hate mail. 'I have never received so many racist comments,' he says from his studio in Stockholm. 'But it is scientifically proved that people living in the Stone Age were darker than today.'

Known as 'Whitehawk Woman', the woman's skeleton was found in a Neolithic causewayed enclosure on Whitehawk Hill in Brighton in 1933. She is one of seven reconstructions commissioned from Nilsson for Brighton Museum's new archaeology gallery, which opened earlier this year.

It was not possible to extract DNA from the bone material, but DNA taken from other British Neolithic remains, analysed by the Natural History Museum, showed blue eyes and a skin colour akin to North Africa or Southern Europe.

According to the museum's curator Andy Maxted, Whitehawk Woman belongs to a wave of immigrant farming people who probably originated 2000 miles away in Anatolia. They gradually replaced the indigenous Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, bringing with them cattle, sheep, goats and possibly pigs, as well as cereal crops and their implements of agriculture.

As Maxted explains: 'She is probably second or third generation. Isotopic ratios from her teeth suggests that she was brought up either on the English/Welsh border, or, possibly, Iberia. Prehistoric peoples were thought to have settled but we are just beginning to learn how much they moved about. We are finding a lot of movement in materials among the Neolithic farming people who built causeways and other large landscape monuments, to whom the Whitehawk Woman belonged.'

The woman, who was 19–25 years old when she died, was found with a new-born child in a grave covered with chalk rubble in a causewayed enclosure with four concentric ditches and banks with signs of palisades:
it is one of the largest and oldest in the UK.

Research on early Britons is continuing at the Natural History Museum, under Dr Selina Brace and Dr Tom Booth. Last year they recreated the face of a hunter-gatherer from the people who preceded Whitehawk Woman. Named 'Cheddar Man' after his place of origin in Somerset, this 10,000-year-old Mesolithic Briton also had blue eyes, but his skin was much darker than that of Whitehawk Woman.

Stonehenge, one of the last Neolithic monuments to be built in Britain, was erected around 3000 BC, just before Whitehawk Woman's descendants were replaced by the incoming Bronze Age Bell Beaker people. According to recent research, about 90% of Neolithic DNA was replaced within 200 years. What caused these shifts in population is unclear, disease perhaps.

Oscar Nilsson is now working on a contemporary of Cheddar Man, from Scandinavia, whose DNA shows him to have been fairer. 'I am not saying that everyone was as dark as the Whitehawk Woman at this age,' explains Nilsson. 'But using DNA there is no discussion. This is science – though I guess some people just see what they want to see.'

Roger Williams