A Piece of Gum From 5,700 Years Ago Reveals the Life of the Girl Who Chewed It

Researchers believe this is what Lola would have looked like, based on a piece of gum she chewed 5,700 years ago.
Researchers believe this is what Lola could have looked like, based on a piece of gum she chewed 5,700 years ago.(Nature Communications)

Researchers determined Lola, a girl who lived nearly 6,000 years ago, likely had dark hair, dark skin and blue eyes. She was also likely lactose intolerant.

A young girl spat out a piece of gum nearly 5,700 years ago. Today, that same piece of gum has helped scientists determine who she might have been.

Lola, named after Lolland Island on the southern coast of Denmark where the piece of gum was discovered, likely had dark brown hair, dark skin and blue eyes, according to a new study published in Nature Communications. She also likely ate a lot of hazelnuts and duck, but not milk, since researchers believe she could have been lactose intolerant.

The discovery marked the first time a full human genome was extracted from something other than human bone or teeth. The sample, in this case, was birch pitch, "a black-brown substance obtained by heating birch bark," according to the study. It was used as glue as early as the Paleolithic Age, also called the Old Stone Age, and ancient people used the material to fix arrowheads or repair other tools.

Birch pitch was chewed to make it more pliable to use as a glue, and it also contained antiseptic properties for treating dental problems or other medical conditions, according to the study. Researchers believe this particular sample had been chewed on, since it contained teeth marks and DNA.

The ancient gum was discovered last year by archaeologists from the Museum Lolland-Falster at the Syltholm site on Lolland, Denmark’s fourth largest island. 

"Syltholm is completely unique. Almost everything is sealed in mud, which means that the preservation of organic remains is absolutely phenomenal," said Theis Jensen, lead author the study and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen’s Globe Institute and the Department of Archaeology at the University of York.

"It is the biggest Stone Age site in Denmark, and the archaeological finds suggest 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," Jensen added. 

They also determined the girl who chewed the gum was more genetically related to hunter-gatherers from Europe’s mainland than those from central Scandinavia, based on her likely hair, skin and eye colors. 

But the DNA also helped researchers understand the sorts of human pathogens that existed in that period, which is significant since they have been less studied over the years. The gum showed traces of Epstein-Barr virus, one of the most common human viruses found today, which can also cause mononucleosis.

Lola's DNA also led researchers to believe she couldn’t digest lactose, which supports previous research that humans did not develop the genetic mutation to be able to drink milk until after dairy farming became widespread during the Neolithic period.