23 May 2024 The Future is the Product of the Past

5,700-Year-old Ancient “Chewing Gum” Gives Information About People and Bacteria of the Past

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen have successfully extracted the complete human genome from “chewing gum” thousands of years ago. According to the researchers, it is a new untapped source of ancient DNA.

A 5,700-year-old lump of pitch tar provided archaeologists with intriguing details about the intimate details of a Danish Stone Age woman – and “chewing gum” sheds new light on the evolution of our species.

Paleolithic chewing gum found on an island known for its mud was perfectly preserved, and scientists were able to determine the color of skin, hair and eyes, pathogen profile, dental condition, diet, and more from the DNA inside it.

On the field, scientists were able to collect her entire genome as well as the genomes of other species that inhabited her mouth. She was lactose intolerant, seemed to prefer wild food to basic grain products, and was a carrier of the viral infection that many of us have today.

“It is amazing to have gotten a complete ancient human genome from anything other than bone,’’ says Associate Professor Hannes Schroeder from the Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen, who led the research.

“What is more, we also retrieved DNA from oral microbes and several important human pathogens, which makes this a very valuable source of ancient DNA, especially for time periods where we have no human remains,” he adds.

Sealed in mud

This individual, named “Lola” after the island where the gum was found, had dark skin, suggesting that northern Europeans’ adaptive lighter skin evolved much later. She could chew gum made of birch bark for many reasons.

_Lolland. Photo- Theis Jensen.
The birch pitch found at Syltholm on Lolland. Photo: Theis Jensen.

The earliest known use of birch pitch dates back to the Palaeolithic. As the primary Stone Age adhesive, the resin of various trees becomes more pliable the more it is heated, and chewing may have been a way of keeping it pliable as it becomes cooler when heated. There’s also the possibility that its antiseptic properties prompted her to chew it to ease toothache, or she might just enjoy the monotonous biting that makes many of us chew gum today.

The birch pitch was discovered during an archaeological excavation in Syltholm, east of Rødbyhavn in southern Denmark.

“Syltholm is completely unique. Almost everything is sealed in mud, which means that the preservation of organic remains is absolutely phenomenal,” says Theis Jensen, Postdoc at the Globe Institute, who worked on the study for his PhD and also participated in the excavations at Syltholm.

“It is the biggest Stone Age site in Denmark and the archaeological finds suggest that the people who occupied the site were heavily exploiting wild resources well into the Neolithic, which is the period when farming and domesticated animals were first introduced into southern Scandinavia,” he adds.

Lola lived at a time when hunter-gatherers and farmers lived in the same areas – something that wasn’t always considered likely. Her penchant for mallard duck and hazelnut while other Paleo-Danes ate their crops further strengthens this theory, as does her inability to tolerate lactose, commonly seen in northern Europeans after animal domestication.

The study was supported by the Villum Foundation and the EU’s Horizon 2020 research program through the Marie Curie Actions.

Cover Photo: Artistic reconstruction of the woman who chewed the birch pitch. She has been named Lola. Illustration by Tom Björklund.

Related Articles

A Small Sandstone Carved With A Viking Ship May Be Oldest Picture Ever Found In Iceland

16 June 2023

16 June 2023

Archaeologists in East Iceland have found a sandstone carved with a Viking ship that may be the oldest picture ever...

Archaeological settlements dating back 3000 years found in Qurayat, Oman

2 October 2022

2 October 2022

Archaeological research in Oman’s Qurayat Province has revealed numerous archaeological and historical settlements, some dating back more than 3,000 years...

INAH Archaeologists recover the coyote-man of Tacámbaro

26 January 2022

26 January 2022

Archaeologists win the coyote-man trial that lasted 30 years in Mexico. The litigation regarding the coyote-man of Tacámbaro, an important...

Receding waters in Lake Van reveal rock-cut Urartian port

22 September 2022

22 September 2022

Located in the eastern province of Van in Turkey, the falling water level of Lake Van, with the decrease in...

Archaeologists explore Eastern Zhou Dynasty mausoleum in China’s Henan

30 January 2022

30 January 2022

An archaeological survey of a royal mausoleum of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770 B.C.-256 B.C.) has been launched in central...

World-first recreation of ancient Egyptian garden open

20 May 2022

20 May 2022

Have you ever wondered what an ancient Egyptian garden was like?  This is your opportunity to find out! The first...

Earliest glass workshop north of the Alps unearthed in Němčice

25 July 2023

25 July 2023

Archaeologists excavated the famous Iron Age site Němčice and uncovered the earliest glass workshop north of the Alps. Numerous beautiful...

46 Eagles in vivid color revealed on Ancient Egyptian temple ceiling

15 May 2022

15 May 2022

A joint German/Egyptian archaeological mission at the Temple of Esna on the west bank of the Nile, 35 miles south...

Near Prague, a Mysterious 7,000-Year-Old Circular Structure

15 September 2022

15 September 2022

Archaeologists are investigating a 7,000-year-old so-called roundel (known as ‘rondely’ in Czech), and monumental structure located in the Vinoř district...

2700-year-old Ancient Blacksmith Workshop Unearthed in Oxfordshire

6 February 2024

6 February 2024

Archaeologists have uncovered a “master blacksmith’s” Iron Age workshop in South Oxfordshire, a local government center in the ceremonial county...

Ushabti figurines on display at Izmir Archeology Museum

18 September 2021

18 September 2021

The 2,700-year-old “Ushabti” statuettes, discovered in archaeological digs in western Turkey and used in Egyptian burial ceremonies, are being shown...

An exciting discovery in Hattusa, the capital of the Hittites

11 September 2022

11 September 2022

It is aimed to reach new information about the traditions of the Hittite civilization with 249 new hieroglyphs discovered in...

Karahantepe; It will radically change the way we look at the Neolithic Age

1 June 2022

1 June 2022

Findings on settled village life in the ongoing excavations in Karahantepe will profoundly change our knowledge of the Neolithic Age....

First direct evidence of drug use as part of Bronze Age ritual ceremonies in Europe

6 April 2023

6 April 2023

An analysis of human hair strands recovered from a burial site in Menorca, Spain, reveals that ancient human civilizations used...

Archaeologists find 4,000-year-old Sanctuary in Netherlands

22 June 2023

22 June 2023

Archaeologists discovered a 4,000-year-old sanctuary during excavations of the model industrial estate in the town of Tiel, located 72 kilometers...