Chewing gum is at once a dentist’s worst nightmare and greatest ally. It really depends on the composition. On the one hand, its quite the sticky substance, which might not bode well for your braces or tooth crevices. On the other, chewing gum with xylitol is proven to help drive down tooth decay and gum disease. And with the discovery of ancient chewing gum—or, at least, what functioned like chewing gum—it might hold another purpose. That is, mapping out the human DNA genome and oral microbiome of our ancient ancestors.
The ancient “chewing gum” in question was birch pitch, which was used as glue during the Paleolithic Age. But how much of a significant discovery is this, exactly?
Another way to look at life in the Paleolithic Age
When understanding our prehistoric ancestors, archeologists often used human bones as a basis. They are, after all, what’s leftover after millions of years. But even then, there are complications. While cemeteries did exist during that time, ancient humans didn’t necessarily control where they died for the most part. And at times, these human bones can be found in places that make it easier for them to decompose.
For the most part, scientists can make do regardless of these circumstances if the bone around the inner ear is kept intact. Archeologists and geneticists can get a better glimpse of how our ancestors lived with this ancient chewing gum. They can also tell what illnesses they had and how they might have looked like.
How so, you may ask? Encased in the birch pitch is genetic material, presumably from prehistoric saliva. Aside from this, scientists also learned a bit about the subject’s diet. This is thanks to a few remnants of their last meal. (You could imagine, then, what archeologists of the future might determine from the chewing gum we leave behind.)
Understanding human DNA and the oral microbiome from ancient chewing gum
After extracting the genetic matter from the ancient chewing gum, how do scientists make sense of this material? As it turns out, the birch pitch doesn’t only preserve human DNA. It also keeps microbial DNA as well. This gives archeologists and geneticists alike a clearer picture of the subject in question.
In this case, scientists determined that the genetic material came from a woman—dubbed “Lola”—who came from the European mainland, according to an article by CNN. (Lola’s gum was located at an archeological site in Lolland, hence the name.) Based on the human DNA extracted from the gum, these scientists determined Lola’s appearance based on the genes sequenced. Here, they found that Lola had “blue eyes, dark skin, and dark hair,” according to the article.
Aside from appearance, scientists also found some insights into Lola’s health based on her oral microbiome. Lola was lactose-intolerant, for one, and potentially had pneumonia. Scientists also noted possible traces of the Epstein-Barr virus.
What can this discovery teach us, then? Our mouths tell more about us than we realize. We’ve often heard that our oral health is the window to our overall health, but health is just one aspect of it. As it turns out, it can clue others into our eating habits and traits as well.
So what’s the bottom line? Take care of your mouth. You’ll never know what discoveries they hold.