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What Ancient ‘Chewing Gum’ Can Tell Us About Life 5,700 Years Ago

December 20, 2019
by NPR


The dark little blob would be easy to overlook at an archaeological site.

Hannes Schroeder, a paleogeneticist at the University of Copenhagen, says a student brought it to him from a Stone Age site in Denmark and had a question: “Can we get DNA out of this?”

Schroeder remembers replying: “We don’t know, haven’t really tried, so let’s give it a go.”

The researchers think ancient people chewed the black-brown substance, known as birch pitch, which “was obtained by heating birch bark,” Schroeder says. He says it’s not clear why they chewed the pitch, but it was likely to soften it up before using it as a kind of glue to stick sharp points onto weapons or tools. They may have even used it for medicinal purposes, such as a pain remedy for toothaches, because it is a mild antiseptic.

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