LETTER TO THE EDITOR: A salute to science


I write to applaud the archaeologists who have recently extracted a Stone Age teenage girl’s complete genome from a piece of birch tar she had chewed and discarded nearly 6,000 years ago. It is impressive that they can figure out what she looked like, what she ate, and what bacteria and viruses she carried. I wonder if they can also deduce other things just from the chewing gum, or if they would need other evidence as well.

For instance: Did teenage girls in the Stone Age roll their eyes all the way up into their heads anytime their parents spoke to them? Can you tell that from chewing gum, or do you need a preserved skull, perhaps with excessive wear on the upper part of the eye sockets?

Did Stone Age girls scream, slam their bedroom doors, and throw themselves onto their beds when angry? I’m sure the gum alone would not tell us that. We would also need to know what sort of homes and furnishings they had. For instance, we can say with certainty that cave-dwelling girls did not do this, because of the time it would take to stack the rocks that formed the bed chamber barrier, and the possible injury from flinging oneself onto a slab of rock. I’m sure the scientists would date this behavior to no earlier than the invention of the door, and of the soft bed.

The archaeologists probably know a lot more than they are willing to publish, because they are conservative by nature and prefer to have multiple sources before declaring anything with certainty. For instance: I am reminded of a program I saw on PBS as a child. They showed some recently discovered cave paintings and the narrator said, “From these paintings, scientists say that prehistoric Man was aware of his reproductive organs.” My dad took one look at the outlandishly large depictions of said organs and said, “Man, that’s not awareness. That’s braggadocio.” One source was enough for Dad to deduce that, but then again, he wasn’t a scientist.

Chris Jones