HomeTrendingAncient Scandinavian DNA Really Looked Like This

Ancient Scandinavian DNA Really Looked Like This

To conduct forensics on a person’s remains, you usually need a body – teeth and bones at the very least. 

To everyone else excavating the site that day, the hard, black wad sticking out of the mud looked far from extraordinary. Nevertheless, it was unearthed, packaged, and sent for testing. But when the results came back, nobody could believe what they had actually found.

The excavation site was located in the southern part of Denmark, in an area by the seaside that was known for its marshlands. 

Although the Danish Lolland marshes hold many secrets from the past in their peaty depths, nothing like this had ever been discovered before. The perfectly preserved hunk of what looked like black, hardened tar held a mystery.  

Lolland is the fourth largest island in Denmark, and it has a unique way of preserving whatever makes its way into the marshes. 

The landscape is covered in a thick layer of mud that seals everything in. Indeed, Lolland is also home to the richest Stone Age site in Denmark. But what had emerged from the mud now was about to change everything.

From what archeologists and scientists have pieced together, people from the Stone Age exploited the natural resources in the Lolland area right up until the Neolithic period. 

Then, domesticated animals and agriculture were introduced. The team had been looking for artifacts, but what they found was a girl named Lola.

No human remains had ever been found at the Lolland dig site – which is surprising considering that the marsh created the perfect, oxygen-free environment for preservation.

Scientists revealed that the piece of hardened tar they had found was made from birch sap, but it was what was inside it that proved a young girl’s entire existence.

Birch pitch is made by heating the bark of a birch tree until it became a thick, black tar. The birch bark was collected, rolled into sheets, and covered in ash. 

Then, hot coals were placed on top. It can be used as glue or hardened further to make tools. But that’s not what this piece of birch pitch had been used for. 

Lola had been living in a small fishing village in southern Denmark – known as Syltholm by modern archeologists. The village bordered on a coastal lagoon, protected by the Baltic sea by sandy barrier islands. 

For the people, the lagoon would have served as a source of water and a rich fishing ground. But the piece of birch pitch revealed a lot more about Lola.

Analyzing the lump of birch pitch revealed that Lola had been living like a hunter-gatherer, and her last meal was hazelnuts, eels, and duck. 

She had also once suffered from the Epstein-Barr virus. All these discoveries were made possible by the ancient lump of birch pitch, but there was more.

Lola had also been lactose intolerant – which wouldn’t have been unusual since her people hadn’t begun to produce dairy yet. She carried bacteria that is known to cause pneumonia and had 26 other viruses.

Scientists were also able to create a composite of what she had looked like – and it was nothing like they had imagined.

All these discoveries were made possible by the piece of birch pitch – which revealed itself to be a 5,700-year-old piece of chewing gum. 

Because the gum was so perfectly preserved and hadn’t been exposed to oxygen for thousands of years, scientists were able to take a sample of Lola’s saliva and sequence her entire genome.

Lola – as she’d been named by scientists – had dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes, which led scientists to believe that she was not closely related to the farmers in the area at the time. In fact, Lola’s DNA revealed that she was more closely linked to another hunter-gatherer group. 

So, Lola was more genetically related to Belgians and Spaniards than Swedes – which gave credence to another theory.

As the ice sheets melted 12,000 years ago, there were two waves of colonization that took place in Scandanavia – one went south, the other went northeast. It is believed that these migrants introduced farming to Norwegian’s coast, but interestingly, Lola had none of the “farming” genes in her DNA. 

Lola’s diet and lactose intolerance indicate that her people never took up farming, even though they had been exposed to it by migrants who colonized the area. But why had Lola been chewing gum in the first place?

Lola’s people mainly used birch bark as an adhesive to make tools. But birch tar had to be chewed so that it became pliable and easier to work with – and that’s probably why Lola’s people discovered that birch pitch is a powerful antiseptic. 

Lola’s saliva showed that she had periodontal or gum disease, so she was probably chewing the “gum” to clean her teeth. But scientists were even more interested in the viruses, bacteria, and microbes that Lola carried.

Lola’s saliva contained the same bacteria that ours does today – Porohyromonas gingivalis, which is responsible for gum disease, and 40 other microbes. 

Some of the bacteria in the ancient piece of gum included Streptococcus pneumoniae, which causes pneumonia, bacteremia, and meningitis. So the people in Lola’s time also suffered from some of the same diseases. This is particularly interesting for scientists and virologists.

“It can help us understand how pathogens have evolved and spread over time, and what makes them particularly virulent in a given environment,” said Hannes Schroeder, who led the research.

“At the same time, it may help predict how a pathogen will behave in the future, and how it might be contained or eradicated,” he added, excitedly. 


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