DNA from 5,700-year-old ‘gum’ shows what one ancient woman may have looked like

Chewed birch pitch could be an overlooked source of ancient genetic material, researchers say

chewed birch pitch

Ancient pieces of chewed birch pitch (one shown) may have been used to attach a handle to a hatchet blade or spearhead.

Theis Jensen

Fossilized bones and teeth aren’t the only source of ancient human DNA.

The genetic material also sticks around in birch pitch “chewing gum,” which can hold enough DNA to piece together the genetic instruction books, or genomes, of long-dead people, researchers report December 17 in Nature Communications. By analyzing a 5,700-year-old chewed wad of pitch from Denmark, the team obtained the genome of an ancient woman, and determined that she probably had blue eyes, dark skin and dark hair.

Ancient humans likely chewed the pitch — made by heating birch bark — to make it pliable, working cells from the mouth deep into the sticky substance. Birch pitch is relatively resistant to bacteria and viruses as well as water, which would have protected the DNA from decay, the researchers say.

The team also recovered DNA from microbes that may have lived in the woman’s mouth, including from older versions of Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis, and bacteria that can cause pneumonia or gum disease. Duck and hazelnut DNA were also identified, and may be remnants from a recent meal the woman ate before popping a piece of pitch into her mouth.

Scientists have gleaned information about ancient humans’ mouth microbes and diets (SN: 10/4/17) from dental plaque in fossilized teeth (SN: 3/8/17). “But that’s been built up over many years,” says study coauthor Hannes Schroeder, a geneticist at the University of Copenhagen. “With the chewing gum, it’s kind of like a snapshot of one moment in time.”

Sofie Bates was the Fall 2019 intern at Science News. She holds an undergraduate degree in genetics and a master’s degree in science communication.

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