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DNA of 5700-year-old chewing gum recreates photo of woman who chewed it

Researchers have different theories about the use of this "chewing gum" including its use as glue to make tools, to help in toothaches, to suppress hunger, or just for no specific purpose like today.

By: Tech Desk | New Delhi | Updated: December 22, 2019 12:26:59 pm
5700 year old woman, 5700 year old chewing gum, old chewing gum, ancient woman diet, university of copenhagen Artistic reconstruction of the woman who chewed the birch pitch. She has been named Lola. (Illustration by Tom Björklund, source: news.ku.dk)

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark have managed to extract a complete human genome from a type of “chewing gum” that dates back to 5,700 years. It allowed them to not only find clues to her dietary habits but also recreate the image of its user.

The study published in the journal Nature Communications suggests that the ancient “chewing gum” was used by a woman. The researchers have also concluded that the woman was genetically more closely related to hunter-gatherers from mainland Europe than to those who lived in central Scandinavia at that time.

The “chewing gum” was made of birch pitch that was found during archaeological excavations at Syltholm on the island of Lolland, Denmark. It is a black-brown substance that could be produced by heating the bark of the birch tree and letting it cooled down. It is believed that people would chew it to make it more malleable.

Researchers have different theories about the use of this “chewing gum” including its use as glue to make tools, to help in toothaches, to suppress hunger, or just for no specific purpose like today.

The researchers claim that they have been able to find that the woman who chewed the birch pitch probably had dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes. They have named her Lola and also created an artistic reconstruction of her image.

“It’s amazing to have retrieved a complete ancient human genome from anything other than bone,” lead researcher and Associate Professor at the University of Copenhagen, Hannes Schroeder, said. “What’s 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 the time where we have no human remains.”

5700 year old woman, 5700 year old chewing gum, old chewing gum, ancient woman diet, university of copenhagen The birch pitch found at Syltholm on Lolland. (Photo: Theis Jensen. news.ku.dk)

The researchers also identified traces of plant and animal DNA in the pitch — specifically hazelnuts and duck — which may have been part of the woman’s diet. They have also 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. It’s, therefore, interesting to find how this is reflected in their microbiome,” Schroeder said.

The researchers also found DNA that could be assigned to the Epstein-Barr virus that is known to cause infectious mononucleosis or glandular fever. Schroeder said that the ancient “chewing gum” showed great potential in researching the composition of our ancestral microbiome and the evolution of important human pathogens.

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

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