5,700-Year-Old "Chewing Gum" Enables Researchers to Recreate a Woman's Entire Genome

Discovered in Denmark, the "gum" gives insights into ancient people and bacteria.
Fabienne Lang

Insights into the genome of a neolithic person have been yielded thanks to "chewing gum" that is 5,700 years old

Scientists from the University of Copenhagen discovered and analyzed the gum in Denmark. This is the first time anything other than bone enables a human's entire genome to be reconstructed. 

Their findings were published in Nature Communications on Tuesday.


What is ancient "chewing gum"?

The way in which the young woman's DNA was gathered was from her teeth marks in the gum. This ancient gum was in fact chewable tar from a birch tree. It's usually heated and can be used as glue as well.

5,700-Year-Old "Chewing Gum" Enables Researchers to Recreate a Woman's Entire Genome
The birch pitch, or "chewing gum", Source: Theis Jensen/University of Copenhagen

This type of birch tar has been found previously in archaeological sites. From this particular "gum", the team was able to find out what this woman ate, where she came from, and what types of bacteria she had in her mouth. 

Furthermore, the scientists from the University of Copenhagen were able to construct an image of the woman. She most likely had dark hair and skin, with light blue eyes, and came from Syltholm on Lolland, a Danish island in the Baltic Sea. 

The team has dubbed her "Lola."

Upon speaking about the area where they discovered the gum, Theis Jensen who worked on the project, said "Syltholm is completely unique. Almost everything is sealed in mud, which means that the preservation of organic remains is absolutely phenomenal."

It's believed that Lola is closely related to Continental Europe's hunter-gatherers, most likely from Germany rather than Scandinavia.

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The birch tar — called birch pitch — is believed by many to have different purposes. Some theorize it was chewed to make it softer in order to build tools, others believe it was used to relieve ailments such as headaches, or as a toothbrush, to stave away hunger, or for plain old "chewing gum" as we know it today.

5,700-Year-Old "Chewing Gum" Enables Researchers to Recreate a Woman's Entire Genome
The researchers' recreation of "Lola", Source: Tom Björklund/University of Copenhagen

Lead researcher of the study, Dr. Hannes Schroeder, said "The preservation is incredibly good, and we managed to extract many different bacterial species that are characteristic of the oral microbiome. Our ancestors lived in a different environment and had a different lifestyle and diet, and it is, therefore, interesting to find out how this is reflected in their microbiome."

Schroeder continued, "It can help us understand how pathogens have evolved and spread over time, and what makes them particularly virulent in a given environment," he continued. "At the same time, it may help predict how a pathogen will behave in the future, and how it might be contained or eradicated."

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