DNA From 6,000‑Year‑Old Chewing Gum Used to Build Portrait of a Neolithic Girl
Meet “Lola,” a young girl with dark hair, dark skin, and blue eyes from the coast of Denmark, whom scientists have just discovered existed — almost 5,700 years ago. Oh, and she likes gum.
Researchers from the University of Copenhagen excavating on an island, Lolland, in Denmark recently mapped the genome of a young Danish girl from the chewing gum she ate almost 6,000 years ago, making it the first time scientists have been able to extract DNA from anything other than human remains.
Scientists found “Lola” was, most probably, a member of the hunter-gatherers from the mainlands in Europe who lived in Scandinavia at the time. “This was a place of special significance,” Theis Jensen, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen and first author on the study, told The Guardian. “These people didn’t live at the site, but probably on dry land a couple of hundred meters away.”
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Not only were they able to paint an almost fully accurate portrait of what “Lola,” looked like, scientists were also able to identify the ancient pathogens and oral microbes she had in her mouth while chewing the gum. Scientists found her diet could have consisted of hazelnuts and duck, traces of which they found in the preserved chewing gum. They also found genes in the gum linked to “lactase non-persistence,” signaling dairy probably didn’t sit well with “Lola.” They also found traces of the Epstein-Barr virus in her DNA, which causes mononucleosis, or mono for short.
On to the chewing gum itself: scientists said it came from birch bark. Called the birch pitch, it’s a blackish substance extracted by heating up the bark of a birch tree. At the time, it was used as glue for attaching handles to stone tools. Archeologists believe the birch pitch might have been chewed to make it moldable for use as glue, to relieve toothaches, to act as toothpaste, or even to suppress hunger.
Jensen told The Guardian, “It’s incredible, because there are periods where we don’t have any bones, but birch pitch survives very well. It’s a substitute for bones, and it’s very intimate. You get so much information.”