Monday, February 3, 2020

What a Piece of Ancient Chewed Birch Bark Pitch Revealed

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

While it is not known what some of our ancestors used birch bark pitch for--a pain remedy for aching teeth, a glue to attach sharp points onto weapons/hunting tools--much is known about the woman who chewed one piece approximately 5700 years before present but not why she was chewing it..

NPR reporter Merritt Kennedy provides a summary of the paper published in the journal Nature Communications.  

The technique used is becoming a commonplace, DNA sequencing. What was most surprising was that the research team was able to reconstruct a complete genome for her. This was also a first. Previously complete human genomes had only been extracted from teeth and bone marrow.

According to paleogeneticist Hannes Schroeder at the University of Copenhagen, "'She had this really striking combination of dark hair and dark skin and blue eyes.' Those features were common to other hunter-gatherers at the time in the area...which is now an island in Denmark called Lolland."
"(Schroder) said she does not have any traces of ancestry from a group that had a very different lifestyle--farmers. Agricultural communities were beginning to spring up in Northern Europe at the time. This suggests that 'there were pockets of hunter-gatherers that survived in different parts of Northern Europe in the Neolithic.'"

"Microbes from her mouth that were also sealed in the ancient gum. They found traces of the Epstein-Barr virus, which can cause mononucleosis. They also extracted remnants of what could have been the woman's last meal--duck and hazelnuts."

See Kennedy's reporting here (read or listen).

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