Researchers use ancient DNA to examine life during the Stone Age

An artist created an interpretation of what

Tom Björklund

An artist created an interpretation of what "Lola" may have looked like.

Meghan Dulay, Editor In Chief of Design

In recent weeks, researchers were able to design a face to match the human DNA found in a 5,700-year-old piece of “gum”.

“Lola”, researchers call her, was an ancient human-gatherer that lived on a small island in the Baltic Sea around 3,700 B.C. Using the DNA found in a small piece of tar, researchers were able to construct a picture of what this human may have looked like. Because their findings are based solely off what her DNA provides, researchers cannot confirm some specific pieces of information, such as how, when, or why she died. However, the DNA of the girl provides majority of her biological footprint; therefore, this discovery is groundbreaking, and provides an abundance of new information as to what human life may have been like during the Stone Age. In this case, Lola’s DNA was found in blobs of birch pitch (tar) after human teeth-marks had been discovered on the ancient “gum”.

While the birch pitch is not the same gum in today’s world, excavated artifacts show that ancient hunters and gatherers put together spears or arrows by heating the birch and using it to hold together stone blades and handles. “Due to the antiseptic nature of birch bark, it may have also had medicinal properties,” (National Geographic).

Like several popular ancestry-tracing companies, DNA found in saliva provides an array of information about a person and their genome. From the specimen, researchers used her DNA to utilize her oral microbiome, and determine some characteristics of her health, including her diet and some of her physical features. Her DNA suggests the ancient European girl had a diet that consisted of ducks and hazelnuts, and that she was likely to have physical characteristics that resembled many of that time, such as blue eyes and dark skin.

The girl’s DNA also provides insight that she may have been lactose-intolerant, and possibly suffered from gum disease. From National Geographic: “Her genome also reveals that she was lactose intolerant, which supports the theory that European populations developed the ability to digest lactose as they began to consume milk product from domesticated animals.”

While these artifacts had been long discovered, never had they been used to provide information about a specific person. “Non-human material” has never been used to construct the face of an ancient person, so this discovery is particularly remarkable, and suggests that this method of research can be used to visualize other ancient specimens.

“This is the first time we have the complete ancient human genome from anything other than [human] bone, and that in itself is quite remarkable,” says Hannes Schroeder, an associate professor of evolutionary genomics at the University of Copenhagen’s Globe Institute and a co-author of the study published in Nature Communications.

“They would look at this crummy little piece of fiber, and I would say the museum has curated this for over a hundred years. And nobody could figure out why we had bothered to save this little thing. Then I’d say we got human DNA out of it, and their eyes would just go wow”, says archaeologist Steven LeBlanc, former director of collections at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.