Ancient ‘chewing gum’ reveals poor Stone Age dental health

Pieces of chewed tar discarded by hunter-gatherers in southwestern Scandinavia nearly 10,000 years ago suggest that Stone Age people suffered from tooth decay and gum disease.

New analysis of DNA found in three pieces of birch pitch (made from heated birch bark) unearthed in Huseby Klev, Sweden, in the 1990s, published in scientific report.

Ancient humans are known to chew asphalt. They used heated bark to glue the tools together.

More than 100 pieces of asphalt were found at the site. Previous DNA analysis showed that the tar chewers were male and female, aged between 5 and 18 years old. However, other bitumen fragments clearly showed adult tooth marks, suggesting that ancient humans of all ages and genders were involved in the tool-making process.

Dating of the fragments shows that they were chewed 9,890-9,540 years ago, the early Neolithic (New Stone Age, 12,000-4,200 years ago).

First, the samples were compared to samples from modern humans, ancient human dental plaque and tar chewed 6,000 years ago. The researchers found a matching microbial profile, indicating that birch tar was indeed chewed by humans.

But they found a key difference – higher levels of bacteria were associated with poor dental health.


It is believed that ancient “chewing gum” may have had antiseptic and medicinal properties. Still, it's probably not surprising to learn that ancient humans had a different level of oral hygiene than we do today.

Researchers find evidence of cause of gum disease Treponema denticola, Streptococcus anginosusand a little looseand those that cause tooth decay Streptococcus nevus and Dentate beetle.

Relative bacterial abundance modeled through machine learning algorithms showed that 70-80% of hunter-gatherer groups suffered from gum disease.

The authors believe that ancient humans used teeth for a variety of tasks, including grasping, cutting and tearing. This may increase their risk of encountering microbial species that cause gum disease and tooth decay.

A variety of other DNA was found on the chewed fragments. Researchers found hazelnuts, apples, mistletoe, red foxes, gray wolves, mallard ducks, limpets and brown trout. These may come from materials that humans chewed before chewing the tar. These may come in the form of food, fur, and bone organs.

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