For as long as humans have existed, we’ve been putting things in our mouths in pursuit of food, medicine or enjoyment. While the first commercially sold chewing gum is credited to John Curtis in 1840, it’s likely that chewing gum has existed in some form or another for as long as people have roamed the earth. Nearly every ancient civilization has a version of gum made from tree resin or tar.
And while chewed-up gum is often thought to be of little value to anyone, researchers at the University of Copenhagen have used someone’s old chewed-up, dried-out “gum” to unlock clues about our ancestors.
Ancient Tree “Gum”
While working to uncover a civilization in Lolland, Denmark, archaeologists found and catalogued a piece of old chewing “gum” — loosely termed, since it was a discarded piece of birch tree pitch. The resin, which is excreted by the tree when the bark is cut and burned, was chewed by ancient Danes in a similar way chewing gum is today.
Although chewing gum was probably as enjoyable to ancient peoples as it is today, it’s likely it was chewed on for medicinal purposes: birch has notable antiseptic properties, and the pitch was frequently used in wound dressings. The taste is sometimes bitter, with notes similar to root beer and light flavorings reminiscent of wintergreen.
A similar find in Finland in 2007 yielded a 5,000-year-old sample of birch gum, notable since it contained very clear impressions of teeth. From the Finnish sample, researchers were able to use bacteria and DNA to get a better picture of population movement in the area at the time, what the average diet consisted of, and what specific kinds of bacteria ancient Finnish people harbored in their mouths.
The newest sample from Denmark is older than the Finnish sample by 700 years, meaning someone was noshing on it during the Stone Age, circa 3,700 BCE. But that “someone” isn’t an anonymous figure — scientists with the University of Copenhagen were able to isolate and sequence an entire human genome from the sample. This is partly because the site where the gum was extracted from was completely encased in mud, preserving the gum and any traces of DNA from spit, plaque and biofilm on it.
Lola was named in 2019. We’ll never know her real name, but we know she was female, likely with dark hair and skin and blue eyes, more similar genetically to those living on the European mainland than those living in what is now Denmark at the time she chewed on her birch gum.
Thanks to science, we know Lola was probably lactose-intolerant and had recently eaten a meal of hazelnuts and duck prior to putting the gum in her mouth. We also know she contracted a virus related to mononucleosis at some point in her life, all thanks to the microscopic traces of DNA left in her chewing gum.
Studying Oral Health Leads to Advances in Overall Health
Even before getting to know Lola and the pathogens she harbored in her mouth some 5,700 years ago, the related fields of science and medicine already knew that studying oral health could lead to advances in overall health.
Dentistry and general medicine go hand in hand — they truly can’t be separated from one another. As we discover more about the people who came before us and the way they cared for their teeth, we discover more about the advancement of illness — and wellness — throughout the ages.
Stuck in the Stone Age?
While some dental professionals are still stuck in the Stone Age with Lola, the office of Drs. Krieger and Hur is entirely in the 21st century. In fact, we’ve leveraged the latest technology to bring you pain-free, hassle-free dentistry. Give our office a call today to book your appointment by dialing (201) 560-0606. You can also click here to email us to secure your spot. We promise we won’t make you chew birch gum to get relief.