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What Can We Learn from Prehistoric Chewing Gum?

By Kevin Hellyer
Updated May 17, 2024
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One of the earliest forms of chewing gum was birch pitch, a black-brown substance made by heating the bark of a birch tree. It may have been used for medicinal purposes because of its antiseptic properties, and it may have also been used to hold weapons or tools together. In any case, when an archaeologist found a blob of birch pitch at a Stone Age site in Denmark in 2019, it set off an astounding chain of events.

The ancient gum was tested for DNA and, miraculously, scientists were able to reconstruct an entire human genome – that of a woman who lived about 5,700 years ago.

All this from a piece of gum:

  • Theis Jensen from the University of Copenhagen, who was working at the archaeological site, said "almost everything is sealed in mud, which means that the preservation of organic remains is absolutely phenomenal."

  • Using the DNA, the researchers figured out what the gum chewer probably looked like: "She had this really striking combination of dark hair and dark skin and blue eyes," explained paleo-geneticist Hannes Schroeder.

  • Among the bacterial species identified in the gum were three linked to severe periodontal disease and Streptococcus pneumoniae, a major cause of pneumonia. The scientists also found the Epstein-Barr virus, which can cause glandular fever.

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