Chew, chew, that ancient chewing gum

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Chew, chew, that ancient chewing gum

Post by ThreeperMan on Mon 13 Jul 2009, 06:33

Chew, chew, that ancient chewing gum

A slovenly modern habit? Or one of the world's oldest pastimes? Elizabeth Aveling explains

The chewing of gum is often thought of as a modern habit, imported to Europe from America this century. In fact, however, chewing gum has a long history stretching back at least 9,000 years, and tar-like materials were commonly chewed throughout much of northern Europe from at least the Early Mesolithic period.

Examples of black lumps of tar with well defined human tooth impressions have been found at several waterlogged bog sites in northern Europe, notably in Germany and Scandinavia. These sites span a period of about 5,000 years, the earliest dating from the beginning of the Mesolithic. Now, in a research project at the University of Bradford, chewed tar from a number of sites has been analysed and found most probably to have come from destructively-heated birch bark. The tar does not appear to have been mixed with any other materials, and chewing gums from different sites and periods were found to be remarkably similar in composition.

Birch bark tar was not just chewed during the Mesolithic and later times, but also had other uses such as waterproofing material and as a hafting agent. Birch bark was used as the glue on the axe belonging to the `Ice Man' - the Copper Age mummy found in an Alpine glacier in 1991 - and although no chewing gums have been found in Britain, cakes of birch bark tar were found at the Mesolithic site of Star Carr in Yorkshire. In Britain birch bark tar seems to have fallen out of favour in later times and by the Roman period its use was rare. In other countries, especially in Scandinavia, Germany, and Eastern Europe as far as Siberia, birch bark tar continued to be used in a variety of functions until relatively recent times.

So, why were prehistoric people chewing birch bark tar? A number of researchers have wondered about possible narcotic properties of the tar, and parallels have been drawn with the practices of betel nut or tobacco chewing, for which there is abundant ethnographic evidence. There are well known addictive stimulants in both of these but whether birch bark tar contains any potential stimulants or addictive substances has yet to be demonstrated. No narcotic effects have been observed by those who have experimented with chewing the tar.

That birch bark tar was chewed for its medicinal properties is another possibility. Birch bark tar contains compounds which could serve as disinfectants, and these might be slowly released during chewing. There are historical records referring to the use of birch bark tar to relieve sore throats. Another suggestion is that herbs or roots used to relieve toothache were pressed into tooth cavities using a piece of tar. At the 6,500-year-old site of Bökeberg in Sweden a piece of chewing gum has been found with the tooth impressions of a 30-40-year-old with a cavity in one tooth. By chewing the gum, it may be that he or she was treating their ailment. It could also be that chewing birch bark tar was an early form of dental hygiene. It is common knowledge today that chewing gum between meals helps to reduce the build-up of plaque.

It may also have been chewed purely for enjoyment. Although the taste cannot be described as pleasant, neither is it entirely unpleasant - and who knows what appealed to the Mesolithic palate? A pattern that has emerged from studies of the tooth impressions is that the majority of chewers were children aged 6-15. This is the age range during which the milk teeth are lost, so it may be they chewed on tar to help remove loose teeth and reduce the pain of teething. Alternatively, children may perhaps have been given birch bark tar to chew in the same way children today are given sweets as pacifiers.

It is puzzling, however, why birch bark tar should have been favoured as a chew over materials requiring less preparation, such as pine resin. Pine species were common in northern Europe during the Mesolithic, and there is abundant historical evidence of pine resin used as a chewing gum until relatively recent times, especially in Scandinavia. Could it be that birch bark tar was a special, maybe even a ritual material? How the tar was produced in a pre-ceramic era is also a mystery. Experiments have shown that tar begins to form at 807°C, but is produced efficiently only at a much higher temperature. The bark must also be heated as far as possible in the absence of air, otherwise all that happens is that the bark chars and no tar is produced. From the Neolithic onwards, sealed pots were available, but no evidence has been found to suggest how the process was achieved in earlier times. Modern attempts to produce tar by combining birch bark with heated stones in a pit have been unsuccessful.

Elizabeth Aveling is a research student at the University of Bradford.

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