Scientists found a piece of 5,700 year old 'chewing gum', which revealed the physical traits, diet, lifestyle and age of a woman who lived during the Stone Age. Who knew a piece of chewing gum could be so important.
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This story was first reported in Live Science.
This is Lola. She was a young girl who had dark hair, dark skin and blue eyes, and lived in what is now Denmark. Around 5,700 years ago, she chewed on a piece of ancient 'chewing gum': a piece of birch pitch (or birch tar), which is a black-brown substance that's created by heating up birch bark.
When scientists found the piece of chewing gum on the island of Lolland in Denmark, they had no idea just how much information they would get out of it. The piece of gum had been preserved perfectly in mud for thousands of years, after Lola was finished with it. From this piece of gum, scientists from the University of Copenhagen were able to extract a complete human genome (Lola's genetic material) from it, as well as DNA from oral microbes and pathogens she had in her mouth.
This is the first time that the human genome has been extracted from something other than human bones.
The other information the team discovered about Lola were that her genes matched with hunter-gatherers from the European mainland rather than those who lived in central Scandinavia at the time, suggesting that she or her ancestors had migrated to modern-day Denmark. Previous finds at the same archaeology site suggested that the people living there in Lola's time were "heavily exploiting wild resources" until well into the Neolithic period, when domestication of animals and farming were introduced in southern Scandinavia.
Lola ate hazelnuts and duck, and was probably lactose intolerant. She also had DNA from the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis. She wasn't the first person to chew ancient chewing gum; it is known that birch pitch was used since the Paleolithic era as a glue for attaching stone tools together. Birch pitch has also previously been found with tooth marks in it, suggesting that it was chewed as it solidified to make it malleable again, or it was used to relieve toothaches or other illnesses as it is slightly antiseptic. It also could have just been chewed for fun.
Analyzing ancient chewing gum is a new way to source DNA to analyze, and it can reveal the microbiome, the evolution of viruses and bacteria, and help scientists to predict how a pathogen might act in the future. All of this from a piece of gum!
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