Lola ― the Stone Age woman whose DNA from ancient ‘chewing gum’ tells an incredible story

She lived 6,000 years ago on a remote island in what is now Denmark and now we can know what it was like. She had dark skin, dark brown hair, and blue eyes.

No one knows what her name was or what she did, but the scientists who reconstructed her face have given her a name: Lola.

Lola – the incredible story of a Stone Age woman

Lola: The Stone Age woman
An artist’s reconstruction of ‘Lola,’ who lived on an island in the Baltic Sea 5,700 years ago © Tom Björklund

The Stone Age woman, Lola’s physiognomy could be known thanks to traces of DNA that she left in a “chewing gum”, a piece of tar that was put in the mouth thousands of years ago and that was preserved long enough to determine its genetic code.

According to the journal Nature Communications, where the research was published on December 17, 2019, it was the first time that a complete ancient human genome had been extracted from material other than bone.

According to the scientists of the study at Hannes Schroeder of the University of Copenhagen, the piece of tar that served as “chewing gum” turned out to be a very valuable source of ancient DNA, especially for periods of time in which no human remains have been found.

“It is surprising to have obtained a complete ancient human genome from something other than bone,” the researchers said.

Where did the DNA actually come from?

The DNA was trapped in a black-brown lump of pitch, produced by heating birch bark, which was used at the time to glue stone tools.

Lola: The Stone Age woman
The birch pitch chewed and spat out by Lola around 3,700 BC. © Theis Jensen

The presence of tooth marks suggests that the substance was chewed, perhaps to make it more malleable, or possibly to relieve toothaches or other ailments.

What is known about Lola?

The entire female genetic code, or genome, was decoded and used to determine what it might have been like.

Lola was genetically more linked to the hunter-gatherers of continental Europe than to those living in central Scandinavia at the time and, like them, she had dark skin, dark brown hair, and blue eyes.

She was probably descended from a settler population that moved from Western Europe after the glaciers were removed.

How did Lola live?

The traces of DNA found in the “chewing gum” not only gave clues about Lola’s life, but also clues about life on Saltholm, the Danish island in the Baltic Sea where they were found.

The scientists identified genetic samples of hazelnut and mallard, suggesting that they were part of the diet at the time.

“It is the largest Stone Age site in Denmark and archaeological finds suggest that the people who occupied the enclave were heavily exploiting the wild resources in the Neolithic, which is the period when agriculture and domesticated animals were first introduced in southern Scandinavia,” said Theis Jensen of the University of Copenhagen.

The researchers also extracted DNA from microbes trapped in the “gum.” They found pathogens that cause glandular fever and pneumonia, as well as many other viruses and bacteria that are naturally present in the mouth but do not cause disease.

Information on the ancient pathogens

The researchers found that information preserved in this way offers a snapshot of people’s lives and provides information about their ancestry, livelihoods and health.

The DNA extracted from chewing gum also gives insight into how human pathogens have evolved over the years. And that tells us something about how they have spread and how they evolved through the ages.