The sequencing of DNA has advanced to such a degree of precision and accuracy that minute traces of tissue, hair, saliva, sweat, semen and other bodily solids and fluids found at crime scenes are able to point to whomever was present. That is, provided that those persons’ DNA is known either from samples taken from suspects or resides in police records. In the case of individuals unknown to the authorities, archived DNA sequences from members of almost all ethnic groups can be used to ‘profile’ those present at a crime. Likely skin and hair pigmentation, and even eye colour, emerge from segments that contain the genes responsible.
One of the oddest demonstrations of the efficacy of DNA sequencing from minute samples used a wad of chewed birch resin. Such gums are still chewed widely for a number of reasons: to stave off thirst or hunger; to benefit from antiseptic compounds in the resin and to soften a useful gluing material – resin derived by heating birch bark is a particularly good natural adhesive . Today we are most familiar with chicle resin from Central America, the base for most commercial chewing gum, but a whole range of such mastics are chewed on every inhabited continent, birch gum still being used by Native North Americans: it happens to be quite sweet. The chewed wad in this case was from a Neolithic site at Syltholm on the Baltic coast of southern Denmark (Jensen, T.Z.T. and 21 others 2019. A 5700 year-old human genome and oral microbiome from chewed birch pitch. Nature Communications v. 10, Article 5520; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-13549-9). The sample contained enough ancient human DNA to reconstruct a full genome, and also yielded fragments from a recent meal – duck with hazelnuts – and from several oral bacteria and viruses, including a herpes variety that is a cause of glandular fever. The sample also shows that the carrier did not have the gene associated with lactase persistence that allows adults to digest milk.
The chewer was female and had both dark skin and hair, together with blue eyes; similar to a Mesolithic male found in a cave in Cheddar Gorge in SW England whose petrous ear bone yielded DNA. By no means all fossil human bones still carry enough DNA for full sequencing, and are in any case rare. Chewed resin is much more commonly found and its potential awaits wider exploitation, particularly as much older wads have been found. Specifically, the Danish woman’s DNA reveals that she did not carry any ancestry from European Neolithic farmers whose DNA is well known from numerous burials. It was previously thought that farmers migrating westward from Anatolia in modern Turkey either replaced or absorbed the earlier Europeans. By 5700 years ago farming communities were widespread in western Europe, having arrived almost two thousand years earlier. The blue-eyed, dark Danish woman was probably a member of a surviving group of earlier hunter gatherers who followed the retreat of glacial conditions at the end of the Younger Dryas ice re-advance about 11,500 years ago. The Syltholm site seems to have been occupied for hundreds of generations. Clearly, the community had not evolved pale skin since its arrival, as suggested by a once popular theory that dark skin at high latitudes is unable to produce sufficient vitamin-D for good health. That notion has been superseded by knowledge that diets rich in meat, nuts and fungi provide sufficient vitamin-D. Pale skins may have evolved more recently as people came to rely on a diet dominated by cereals that are a poor source of vitamin-D.