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Genetic Code from 5,700 Year-old ‘Chewing Gum’ Reveals Extraordinary Details of Young Danish Woman


A 5,700-year-old chunk of tar from a tree provided intriguing details to archaeologists about the intimate details of a Danish Stone Age woman, and the ‘gum’ sheds new light on the evolution of our species.

By Theis Jensen / University of Copenhagen

Found on an island known for its mud, Paleolithic gum has been perfectly preserved and scientists were able to determine the individual’s skin, hair, and eye color, pathogen profile, dental health, diet, and more from of internal DNA.

3,700 years before the biblical story of Jesus, a dark-skinned, dark-haired, blue-eyed woman lived in a place in Denmark called Syltholm, on the island of Lolland, and chewed a centimeter-long piece of birch before spitting . on the ground, as many have since.

There it was wrapped in mud for millennia until scientists managed to identify it, preserve it and study it in some way.

In the field, the researchers were able to collect its entire genome, as well as those of other species that had inhabited its mouth. He was lactose intolerant, seemed to prefer wild foods to agricultural staple grains, and carried a viral infection that many of us have today.

“It is amazing to have obtained a complete ancient human genome from anything other than bone,” says associate professor Hannes Schroeder of the Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen, who led the investigation.

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“What’s more, we also recover DNA from oral microbes and several important human pathogens, making this a very valuable source of ancient DNA, especially for periods of time when we don’t have human remains,” he adds.

A window in time

This individual, named “Lola” after the island on which the gum was found, had dark skin, suggesting that the lighter adaptive skin of northern Europeans evolved much later. He may have been chewing gum, made from birch bark, for a number of reasons.

Illustration of Lola by Tom Björklund / University of Copenhagen

As the main bonding agent of the Stone Age, the resin from a variety of trees becomes more flexible the more it is heated, and chewing it could have been a way to keep it flexible as it cools after heating.

There’s also the possibility that its antiseptic properties led her to chew it to ease dental pain, or she just might have enjoyed the monotonous bite that leads many of us to chew gum these days.

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The contained chewing gum Viral DNA from the Epstein-Barr virus, which currently infects 90% of humans. The DNA of the mallard and hazelnuts, probably the food that Lola last enjoyed, was also locked up in the field.

“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 her Ph.D. and also participated in the excavations at Syltholm.

“It is Denmark’s largest Stone Age site and archaeological finds suggest that the people who occupied the site were heavily exploiting wild resources well into the Neolithic, which is the period when agricultural and domestic animals they were first introduced in southern Scandinavia, “he said. adds.

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Lola lived in a time when hunter-gatherers and farmers lived in the same areas, something that it was not always considered probable. Their fondness for mallard and hazelnut, while other Paleo-Danes ate crops, further reinforces this theory, as does their inability to tolerate lactose, which is generally seen in northern Europeans after domestication of animals.

The next time you see chewing gum in a ditch, think of Lola, and maybe in another five thousand years scientists will be able to analyze the characteristics of our modern time.

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