Over 5,000 years ago, a young woman named “Lola” discarded a lump of freshly chewed birch tar into a pre-historic lagoon in what we recognise today as Denmark. Nearly 5,700 years later, researchers from the University of Copenhagen have exacted that very same piece of birch to reveal, in remarkable detail, what her diet included as well as a good idea of what she looked like.
The piece of birch was found on the island of Lolland, hence her name Lola. The archeological site on the island of Lolland preserved the birch so well that scientist were able to extract a complete ancient genome, along with extracting over 40 ancient microbes and pathogens she carried in her mouth. They also discovered the genetic materials of hazelnuts and duck, giving researchers a good idea of what her diet consisted of.
(The birch pitch found at Syltholm on Lolland. Photo credit: Theis Jensen.)
“This is the first time anyone has got a full ancient genome from anything other than bone or teeth. The preservation of the gum is quite extraordinary. We didn’t expect to get the whole genome,” said Hannes Schroeder, Molecular anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen.
The birch chewing gum also revealed that Lola’s genes matched closely to other hunter-gatherers from Europe, along with the fact that Lola had dark skin, blue eyes, and dark hair.
According to lead author, Theis Jensen, “The people who occupied the site were heavily exploiting wild resources well into the Neolithic, which is the period when farming and domesticated animals were first introduced into southern Scandinavia.”
Birch is a dark-brown, almost black substance that is created by heating up the bark found on a birch tree. It was mostly used as a glue for crafting stone tools, but it was been discovered that ancient humans would chew this substance, like in the case of Lola. Analyzing data from ancient “chewing gum” is a relatively new practice, but researchers believe this method of DNA testing could explain how viruses and bacterias evolve and change over time.
Feature image: Illustration by Tom Björklund/University of Copenhagen.