TechPrehistoric Scandinavian youth used chewed resin as glue: Artifacts reveal insights into ancient health issues

Prehistoric Scandinavian youth used chewed resin as glue: Artifacts reveal insights into ancient health issues

Pieces of chewed tar and their castings
Pieces of chewed tar and their castings
Images source: © Verner Alexandersen

10:13 PM EST, January 21, 2024

A former hunter-gatherer settlement dating back approximately 9700 years was discovered north of Gothenburg in Sweden in the 1990s. The site, now known as Huseby Klev, has yielded an estimated 1849 artifacts, primarily comprised of flint, and 115 pieces of resin. The markings on these resin pieces suggest that they were used for chewing, most likely for recreational or medicinal purposes. Traces of teeth and DNA remnants have proven invaluable in providing researchers with insight, such as revealing that the individual who chewed a particular piece suffered from a severe gum infection.

Resin was commonly chewed by the youth of the era

Children and teenagers of the time generally chewed the resin, primarily birch, to prepare it for use as glue in tool construction. This prepared substance, for example, could be used to adhere a stone axe or knife blade to a wooden handle. Similar substances- such as pine resin, natural bitumens, or other gum-like plant materials- were used globally in a parallel fashion.

Remnants of chewed and then hardened resin have provided samples laden with traces of prehistoric human DNA. In-depth analyses revealed that up to half of the DNA found within these samples was of human origin. The remaining DNA belonged to fungi and bacteria, inhabiting both the resin and the mouth of the individual chewing the "gum". Genome analysis also demonstrated that teenagers of both sexes participated in the tool making process using glue prepared from the resin.

Resin offers insights into prehistoric health issues

Beyond the expected oral microorganisms and bacteria commonly found in a human mouth, researchers identified traces of bacteria responsible for tooth decay, as well as pathogens causing Hib disease, which can lead to severe infections like meningitis in young children, and endocarditis in adults. However, these findings don't necessarily imply that ancient Scandinavians were more susceptible to these diseases; comparable levels of these bacteria and pathogens are also found in healthy individuals today. Nonetheless, such ailments were part of society at that time.

Multiple samples were found to contain traces of bacteria indicative of gum disease. Machine-learning models determined with 75% certainty that a girl who chewed one of the ancient gum pieces, suffered from a severe case of periodontitis.

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