The Ancient Substance Revealed Her Health, Appearance And Eating Habits
If you were looking for an indication of what life was like in the stone age, the last place you’d expect to find any data is in the ancient equivalent of glue and chewing gum. Surprisingly, that’s exactly where scientists recently unearthed some clues to what life what like for a girl who lived nearly 6,000 years ago in Denmark.
A piece of pitch from a birch tree, which humans of that time used to use the same way our modern society uses chewing gum, held surprising information that told researchers about her life. It provided details about what she was like, her health, what she ate and more.
Finding And Using The Sample
It isn’t unheard of to find birch pitch at ancient archeological sites. Obtained by heating birch tree bark, pitch was used by our earliest ancestors for hundreds of thousands of years as glue for tools and, eventually, to chew on or as a type of antiseptic. In fact, previously, a 10,000-year-old similar sample was retrieved at another Scandinavian site in Sweden and similarly analyzed.
At the Danish site, archeologists and other researchers were able to use an extremely well-preserved sample of birch pitch that, due to its age, yielded more information than the older specimen. The new sample was found on the Danish island of Lolland. As with other artifacts in the area, it was sealed in mud and retained a high degree of information.
Experts were able to extract some of the DNA that remained in the sample, which yielded incredible amounts of data — approximately 390 million DNA reads to be exact. With such a large amount of information present, researchers were able to learn quite a bit about the girl who chewed it. Excited by their discoveries, they published their results in December 2019 as part of the journal Nature Communications.
What Scientists Found
Scientists learned a wide range of things about the person who chewed the pitch sample. They determined that she was female, with blue eyes and darker skin and hair, and that her microbiome indicated she may have been lactose intolerant. Incredibly, they could see what she’d last ate — mallard duck and hazelnuts — because they were able to pull DNA from food sources that were also captured by the piece of the pitch.
Information from the sample didn’t end there. Analyzing extractions from the pitch also told researchers that the girl was genetically related to hunter-gatherers from the European mainland. This allowed them to better understand what migration patterns might have been like at that time. Additionally, researchers identified potential pathogens in the sample, including the ones for both the Epstein-Barr virus and for pneumonia.
Other Reasons That This Research Is Extraordinary
Without question, this level of information that came from the pitch sample is remarkable in its detail. However, it is also extremely significant that pitch was the source of the information rather than human remains.
This research is something of an archeological milestone in that it is the first time that something other than human bones were used as the source for ancient genetic material. In fact, in this case, there weren’t human remains available to study. The DNA found in the sample was presently the only viable source for study that could teach scientists something new about the people who once inhabited the area.
What does this mean for the future? Going forward, scientists can now consider new ways to learn about the geographies and cultures they’re studying. They’re not restricted by the limited resources or the tools available from the past. That’s good news and may herald a host of enlightening research and information in the coming decades.
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