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Ancient Teens Chewed Gum

A type of gum chewed by teens nearly 10,000 years ago is revealing a lot about how at least some young people lived.

A piece of chewed black tree pitch and two casts, with a scale in inches.

Kashuba, N., Kırdök, E., Damlien, H. et al. Commun Biol 2, 185 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42003-019-0399-1

A piece of ancient gum (center) from a site in Sweden. The objects on either side are casts (molds) that were taken of the gum. 

Stone Age teens weren’t familiar with bubble gum, but they did chew another type of gum. Remnants of that sticky stuff are revealing a lot about their diet and oral health.

The “gum” in question is pitch, a sticky substance that comes from trees. Scientists found bits of prehistoric pitch at a site in Sweden in the 1990s. The pitch contained human saliva as well as teeth marks, indicating that it had been chewed. Further study revealed that the pitch was chewed between 9,890 and 9,540 years ago by male and female teens, as well as kids as young as 5 years old.

A pile of birch tar pitch atop a piece of wood in a snowy area.

Jorre (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This photo shows pitch from birch trees, which is what ancient teens once chewed.

Scientists aren’t sure why young people would have chewed the gum. The most likely reason is that they were making it sticky so that it could serve as glue for the assembly of tools and weapons, or to repair a hole in a boat. But there are other possibilities.

“[Tool assembly] is a most likely hypothesis,” Anders Gotherstrom, who co-authored a 2024 study on the ancient gum, told Agence France-Presse. “[Or it] could of course have been chewed just because they liked [it] or because they thought that [it] had some medicinal purpose.” 

Whatever the reason for it, the Stone Age gum habit tells scientists a lot about the people of that period—at least those who lived in that part of Sweden. Through a DNA analysis, scientists were able to determine that the ancient kids and teens had recently eaten deer, trout, apples, hazelnuts, and more.

Bacteria found on some of the gum indicated that at least one of the teens was suffering from gum disease. The tree pitch itself wouldn’t have caused the disease, so there had to be some other explanation. According to scientists, prehistoric children in that part of the world used their teeth as tools—to cut through furs and even whittle bones. It’s possible that this process introduced harmful bacteria to their mouths.

NEWS EXTRA

Super Bowl Champs!

Two football players hug in celebration on the field as other players in the same uniform look on.

Jeff Speer—Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman celebrates with Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (number 15). Hardman caught the game-winning touchdown pass.

For the second year in a row, the Kansas City Chiefs are Super Bowl champions. The Chiefs scored a 25-22 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, becoming the first team to win two consecutive Super Bowl titles since the New England Patriots nearly 20 years ago.

The Chiefs are only the seventh team in NFL history to win four Super Bowls.

Did You Know?

A man in 19th century clothing asks a similarly dressed man for a piece of gum and the other man directs him to a forest.

Wagner & M’Guigan/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-DIG-pga-14024), © Zlikovec/Dreamstime.com; Photo illustration Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The first branded chewing gum was introduced in 1848 by American John Bacon Curtis. Called State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum, it was made from spruce tree resin.

Who Used These Tools?

Two hands hold stone weapons, one much smaller than the other.

Dr. Robert J. Losey

These two stone weapons were discovered at a 1,700-year-old site in Oregon. Scientists believe the one on the right was designed for a child.

Life was not all fun and games for prehistoric kids and teens. A 2018 study examined tools and hunting weapons from a site in Oregon that dates back about 1,700 years and found that some of the artifacts were small enough to have been used by child-sized hands. Scientists believe that ancient children in the area were expected to practice using these items so they’d be experts by the time they reached adulthood.

Scientists have found similar, small-scale prehistoric items in Sweden, Russia, and Greenland, adding to the growing evidence that prehistoric parents expected their kids to learn useful skills. It makes sense since these skills would have been essential to survival.

Dig Into Archaeology

A man lies on his stomach and applies a brush to an object at an archaeological site.

David Mercado—Reuters/Newscom

In this 2007 photo, archaeologist Roger Angel Cossio cleans the remains of a 1,300-year-old tomb discovered in western Bolivia.

Since humans existed long before writing was invented, learning about early humans requires a lot of detective work. Archaeologists learn about our ancient past by studying the materials ancient humans left behind. You can learn about this exciting field at Britannica!

WORD OF THE DAY

masticate

PART OF SPEECH:

verb

Definition:

: to chew (food)

Definitions provided by
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Crossword

O
O
O
O
O
O

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