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This Is 'Lola,' a 5,700-Year-Old Woman Whose Entire Life Is Revealed in Her 'Chewing Gum'

This is an artistic reconstruction of Lola, a 5,700-year-old woman whose appearance was reconstructed from DNA analysis of a chewed piece of birch pitch.
This is an artistic reconstruction of Lola, a 5,700-year-old woman whose appearance was reconstructed from DNA analysis of a chewed piece of birch pitch.
(Image: © Tom Björklund)

Thousands of years ago, a young Neolithic woman in what is now Denmark chewed on a piece of birch pitch. DNA analysis of this prehistoric "chewing gum" has now revealed, in remarkable detail, what she looked like.

The team nicknamed the young Neolithic woman "Lola" after Lolland, the island in Denmark on which the 5,700-year-old chewing gum was discovered. The Stone Age archaeological site, Syltholm, on the island of Lolland, pristinely preserved the gum in mud for the thousands of years after Lola discarded it.

It was so well-preserved that a group of scientists at the University of Copenhagen were able to extract a complete ancient human genome — all of the young girl's genetic material — from it. They were also able to extract DNA from ancient pathogens and oral microbes that she carried in her mouth. 

Related: In Images: An Ancient European Hunter Gatherer

This is the first time that an entire human genome was extracted from something other than human bones, according to a statement from the University of Copenhagen. The team's analysis revealed that the chewer of the prehistoric gum was female, and likely had dark skin, dark hair and blue eyes. They found that Lola's genes matched more closely to hunter-gatherers from the European mainland than those who lived in central Scandinavia at the time.

This piece of birch pitch from Syltholm preserved Lola's entire genome.

This piece of birch pitch from Syltholm preserved Lola's entire genome. (Image credit: Theis Jensen)

The ancient chewing gum also held traces of plant and animal DNA, such as DNA from hazelnuts and duck, which might have been part of Lola's diet, according to the statement. Finally, scientists found genes associated with "lactase non-persistence," meaning Lola likely didn't digest dairy very well. 

Other previous archeological finds from the site had suggested "that 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," lead author Theis Jensen, a postdoctoral fellow from the Globe Institute at the University of Copenhagen, said in the statement.

Finally, the researchers found DNA from oral microbes in the chewing gum, including DNA that could belong to the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis, otherwise known as "mono" or the "kissing disease."

The birch pitch is a blackish-brown substance that's created by heating up birch bark. This substance has been used since the Paleolithic era as glue for hafting stone tools, according to the statement. 

But previously, pieces of birch pitch have been found with tooth marks, so archeologists think that as the pitch cools and solidified, it was chewed to make it moldable again before using it to glue. 

Other theories suggest that people chewed the slightly antiseptic birch pitch to relieve toothaches or other illnesses. Birch pitch might also have been used for toothbrushing, to suppress hunger or even just for fun as chewing gum, according to the statement.

Ancient "chewing gums" are a relatively new source of DNA to analyze, and can help reveal the microbiome of our ancestors. It may also help explain how bacteria and viruses have changed over time.  

"It can help us understand how pathogens have evolved and spread over time, and what makes them particularly virulent in a given environment," senior author Hannes Schroeder, an associate professor from the Globe Institute at the University of Copenhagen, said in a statement. "At the same time, it may help predict how a pathogen will behave in the future, and how it might be contained or eradicated."

The findings were published on Dec. 17 in the journal Nature Communications.

Originally published on Live Science.

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  • amhuizar
    I find it amazing that someone would think to preserve that piece of birch bark after finding it in the mud.
    Reply
  • LaWanda
    I'm not sure why anyone is not picking up on this. The DNA sample is from someone from Denmark. Why does she have (according to the DNA reconstruction) have dark hair & skin??
    Reply
  • Bellani
    LaWanda said:
    I'm not sure why anyone is not picking up on this. The DNA sample is from someone from Denmark. Why does she have (according to the DNA reconstruction) have dark hair & skin??

    #4I wonder about the same myself. I enlarged the image, had a close look at her and her surroundings, even what she seemed to be sitting on, all this seems to be like a lot of us here, where we live... maybe I wonder too much
    Reply
  • Kellyraetreides
    LaWanda said:
    I'm not sure why anyone is not picking up on this. The DNA sample is from someone from Denmark. Why does she have (according to the DNA reconstruction) have dark hair & skin??
    The article say, "They found that Lola's genes matched more closely to hunter-gatherers from the European mainland than those who lived in central Scandinavia at the time."
    Reply
  • Racipin
    It is known from genetics that early Europeans were dark skinned and dark haired. Skin color change happened later in history.
    Reply
  • CillFactor
    LaWanda said:
    I'm not sure why anyone is not picking up on this. The DNA sample is from someone from Denmark. Why does she have (according to the DNA reconstruction) have dark hair & skin??

    To be honest it's not as suprising as you might think. The Same people in the northern part of Scandinavia are descended from hunter gatherers and also have a darker skin tone. The European Scandinavian as we know them are from an other group of migrants which were less of a hunter gatherers and more like farmers.

    I got this from a documentary which talked in detail about the human migration into Scandinavian countries, there where multiple groups. (Not sure what is was called) While the glaciers melted the hunter gatherers followed the pray more and more up north.

    We do know that all humans descended from darker skinned ancestors, but losing the darker pigmentation seems not to have played a big role in the Scandinavians skin tone. The different descendants had a bigger influence.
    Reply
  • jdmccall
    The scientists, while not dumb, could not understand why she talked like a woman and walked like a man.
    Reply
  • Polly Styrene
    Re skin / hair & eye colour. There must be a correlation to the migration patterns of ancient briton, as "cheddar man" and DNA samples of a woman (both ancient britons) had dark skin and blue eyes. I find this interesting, I thought heavy pigment was correlated with sun protection, and blue eyes were a feature of colder northern climates with low need for sun protection. Maybe the dark skin was vestigal as migration moved away from africa and blue eyes were an adaptation. Anyway - they say the earliest britons were dark skinned with blue eyes. Fascinating.
    Reply
  • HattinGokbori87
    According to some recent scientific report Europeans were dark-skinned until 8,000 years ago. Some anthropologist think that white skinned people came to mainland Europe from outside and white skin gene mixed with native Europeans by intermarriage and later white skinned become dominant by colonization. When Christianity arrived in Europe it boosted the speed of colonization and remaining native Europeans were cleared through ethnic cleansing.
    Reply
  • Wal
    admin said:
    Thousands of years ago, a young Neolithic woman in what is now Denmark chewed on a piece of birch pitch.

    This Is 'Lola,' a 5,700-Year-Old Woman Whose Entire Life Is Revealed in Her 'Chewing Gum' : Read more
    Racipin said:
    It is known from genetics that early Europeans were dark skinned and dark haired. Skin color change happened later in history.
    White people were not invented yet? Lol
    Reply