Ten thousand years ago, a group of teenagers in what is now Sweden chewed and spat out bits of birch resin, similar to the way children today stick gum under school desks. However, little did these ancient teens know that their discarded gum would one day be analyzed by scientists to reveal that they had eaten deer, trout, and acorns, processed wolf and fox fur with their teeth, and suffered from gum disease.
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The three chewed pieces of birch wood – which were used as an adhesive in the Stone Age – were originally discovered in the 1990s at a site called Hosby Cliff. Based on the age of the sediments in which the samples were found, researchers estimate they are between 9,540 and 9,890 years old.
To confirm that the wrinkled specimens had actually been chewed by humans, the study authors compared the sequences of microbial DNA found in the resin to modern and ancient salivary microbes. In doing so, high levels of bacteria associated with gingivitis (gum disease) such as Treponema dentinum, Streptococcus anginosus, and Salacia exigua were detected.
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Other types of bacteria, including Streptococcus sobrinus and Parascardovia denticolens, both signs of tooth decay, were also abundant in the old gum. Study author Dr. Emrah Kerduk commented on these results in a statement, explaining, “The richness of the DNA sequences of Hospi-Cliff gum was observed, and we find in it all the bacteria known to be associated with gingivitis, and the DNA of plants and animals that were previously chewed.”
In fact, in addition to highlighting stone Age Because of the poor oral health of Scandinavians, genetic information extracted from gum revealed the different species of plants and animals that passed between chewers' lips shortly before they chewed the resin. These included food sources such as hazelnuts, apples, brown trout, red deer, and seaweed.
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Bird species such as mallards and robins have also been found, suggesting that Stone Age Norsemen could have used their teeth to use their bones to manipulate these creatures into tools in addition to eating them.
Researchers have discovered several types of dogs, including: Red foxArctic fox and wolf DNA has also been identified. According to the authors, these animals may have been hunted for their fur, and humans may have once used their teeth to make fur.
Other plants found in the gum include mistletoe, which researchers say could have been used medicinally or to make poison for arrowheads.
Summing up the team's findings, Professor Anders Gutherström, author of the study, said the DNA found in ancient gum “provides a snapshot into the lives of a small group of hunter-gatherers on the west coast of Scandinavia.”
“We know that 9,700 years ago, these teenagers on the west coast of Scandinavia were eating deer, trout and hazelnuts, while at least one of them had serious problems with his teeth.”