Question: What questionable dental habit has roots in Sweden that date back at least 9,000 years?
Answer: Chewing gum
Forget the Doublemint Twins and Bazooka Joe—they barely count as retro when it comes to gum. In Sweden, archaeologists found the world’s first pieces of chewing gum and they weren’t just ancient, they were prehistoric: a whopping 9,000 years old. And, yes, the gum was “ABC” (already been chewed).
Researchers were studying the remnants of a Mesolithic community in northern Sweden when one of the youngest team members, a 23-year-old British grad student, came across what might have been mistaken for a trio pebbles if he hadn’t noticed the teeth marks. Scientific examination revealed the lumps were masticated resin from birch bark, which remarkably still bore not only bite impressions but fingerprints as well. Mixed into the resin was DNA that revealed the age and gender of the chewer: a teenage boy.
Though the gum had been sweetened with honey to make it taste better, it was less a treat than a task. Evidence suggests that workers chewed birch bark and rolled it between their fingers to make a sticky putty that they could use as an adhesive. (Using gum as glue makes sense when you consider the long-lasting hold of chewing gum stuck under picnic benches and school desks.)
The ingenuity of this Scandinavian hunter-gatherer tribe extended to all areas of life. They also were early adopters of flint to make fire, and were clever enough to use quartz and slate the same way when flint was unavailable. They needed to be this crafty to survive: they were among the first humans to emerge after the end of the Ice Age.
More Memorable Ancient Finds in Scandinavia
- Silk Road silver: A 3,000-year-old grave in Sweden was revealed to contain a trove of 163 silver coins marked with Arabic inscriptions from a Viking excursion to the Silk Road city of Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan).
- Viking jewelry: Amateur archaeologists found Denmark’s largest stash of Viking gold while digging in a Jutland field, unearthing more than two pounds of gold (a rarity for Vikings, who preferred silver) formed into bracelets and amulets.
- The missing rune stone: A thousand-year-old rune stone that archaeologists had read about but never found was discovered in Denmark—chopped into pieces to make a farmer’s patio.
- Ritual petroglyphs: While examining a historic site near Norrköping, Sweden, researchers discovered petroglyphs with new symbols not seen in Sweden before, including combination sun-and-cross designs and tall humans who might be praying or dancing.
- An Odin with horns: A metal detector found an eighth-century Odin brooch that shows his helmet adorned with what appear to be horns (a mischaracterization made popular by Wagner in the 19th century), but which were really his ravens, their features blunted by the wearer’s use of the brooch as a flint.
- Keyrings to nowhere: At the Gamla Uppsala pagan site in Sweden, archaeologists unearthed 200 metal amulet rings with dangling key-like charms used as magical tokens for sacred rituals practiced 2,700 years ago.
- Bronze Age accessories: Danish researchers discovered 2,000 fingertip-sized gold spirals dating to the Bronze Age and believed to have been worn for religious ceremonies, either clipped directly into the wearer’s hair or to their headwear as decoration.
- A Viking toolbox: No one knows for sure how the Vikings used their circular fortress in Vallø Borgring, Denmark (partly because it was set on fire from the outside), but a CT scan of the ruins revealed a 1,000-year-old toolbox with spoon drills, a draw plate, and other tools not yet familiar to researchers.
- A 5,000-year-old map: On the island of Bornholm, a detailed stone map with ray-like lines was revealed not to be a star map as expected but an accurate topographical survey of the island from 2900 BC.
- The oldest preserved herring: Revealing that fermentation as food preservation began much earlier than originally thought, 9,000-year-old fish bones found in Sweden are the earliest precursor to Surströmming, the common fermented herring dish still eaten today.
Explore both the ancient and modern sides of Scandinavia during your Grand Baltic Sea Voyage.