Lola had light eyes and dark skin and hair. She ate duck with hazelnuts, suffered from a gum infection and lived near Rødbyhavn, west of the Danish island of Lolandia. When I say she “she lived” she means it conscientiously: she lived there about 6,000 years ago. The most amazing thing is not this: the most amazing thing is that we know all this from a chewing gum.
A 6,000-year-old chewing gum. Well, not everything. The name of the girl we do not know, the researchers called her Lola in honor of the island where she was found. Everything else, she has been “extracted” from a piece of birch pitch (or tar). This substance, which emerges during the burning of birch bark, has been used since the Palaeolithic to make tools and weapons for its adhesive properties.
However, in recent years several research groups across Europe had come across pieces of tar with tooth marks. The question that the archaeologists had was whether they chewed the “glue” to soften it or used it as a kind of chewing gum (taking advantage of the fact that this substance also has antiseptic and antibacterial properties).
When ancient DNA stopped being science fiction Until relatively recently, these were the kind of questions that were never even seriously considered: only a stroke of luck could solve them (and not conclusively), so theorizing about them was interesting entertainment, but little else.
However, when researchers at the University of Copenhagen discovered the image stone at the Syltholm site, they had something that a decade earlier would have seemed like science fiction: highly developed techniques for reading and sequencing ancient DNA; techniques that allow extracting a disproportionately high amount of information. Above all, if we take into account that we are talking about tar chewing gum.
What chewing gum hides (prehistoric). Analyzing the DNA they found in the chewing gum and diving into mutations that we already know well, they discovered that the girl had many of the physical characteristics of the girl (dark hair, brown skin, light eyes); They also discovered that she was lactose intolerant, that she had the Epstein-Barr virus, and that, well, she carried two X chromosomes.
But the situation did not stop there. Mainly because there was so much more material in that gum. The researchers found the bacteria and viruses that Lola must have had in her mouth. They found normal things, but also evidence that pointed to periodontitis (something that, by the way, supports the idea that chewing gum could be used as medicine). Finally, and surprisingly for the archaeologists, there was also material in the gum that indicated that the girl had eaten duck and hazelnuts before chewing it.
The new doors of the past. The use of ‘ancient DNA’ has been highly controversial. Not because it doesn’t provide us with invaluable information (which it does), but because it is often not put into context with other archaeological evidence and generates sensational narratives. However, it is increasingly clear that as the years go by, these problems are disappearing and our way of looking at the past becomes more organic, deeper and more full of meaning. Who was going to tell us that the keys to the remote history of humanity were going to be in the future.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism