Story at a glance

  • Archeologists in Denmark are excavating a site near an ongoing project to build an underwater tunnel.
  • Researchers were able to extract an ancient human genome from a 5,700-year-old piece of chewing gum.
  • Evidence suggests the human who chewed the gum was a woman with dark skin, dark hair and blue eyes.

Thousands of years before there was Trident gum or Hubba Bubba, human beings chewed other sorts of gum — including birch pitch, a black-brown substance produced by heating birch bark. In Denmark, archaeologists have unearthed a 5,700-year-old type of “chewing gum” with a complete ancient human genome of a likely dark-skinned, dark-haired and blue-eyed woman closely related to the hunter-gatherers from mainland Europe.

“It is amazing to have gotten a complete ancient human genome from anything other than bone,’’ lead researcher Hannes Schroeder, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen, said in a release from the university. "What is 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 time periods where we have no human remains."


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The specimen was found at Syltholm, which is the biggest Stone Age excavation site in Denmark, according to researcher Theis Jensen, where the Museum Lolland-Falster is working in connection with a project to build an immersed tunnel connecting the Danish island of Lolland with the German island of Fehmarn. Most of the site is sealed in mud, which is "absolutely phenomenal" for the preservation of organic remains, Jensen said in the release. So far, researchers have identified traces of hazelnuts and duck DNA in the pitch, likely part of the woman's diet, as well as different bacterial species that are characteristic of an oral microbiome.

"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," said Schroeder. 


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Published on Apr 07, 2021