When Did Our Human Ancestors Develop a Taste for Alcohol, and Did It Help Them Survive?

Research conducted by paleogeneticist Matthew Carrigan and his colleagues at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida suggest that our human ancestors developed the knack for consuming alcohol about 10 million years ago, long before modern humans began fermenting wine and brewing beer. It is also possible that this evolutionary mutation played a significant role in our species’ survival. Allow me to explain how this might have transpired.images

In their research, Carrigan and coworkers examined the evolutionary history of various primate species related to modern humans as a means of estimating when our human ancestors developed the ability to produce a gut enzyme that safely metabolizes alcohol. The enzyme in question is known as Class IV alcohol dehydrogenases, abbreviated to ADH4. Without this enzyme present in an animal’s body, consuming alcohol causes extreme stomach pain, nausea, and overall physical discomfort, resulting in the animal later rejecting similarly fermented foods. Carrigan’s research found that the gorilla, a primate ancestor from whose lineage humans diverged roughly 10 million years ago, has the ADH4 enzyme in its body. This finding led Carrigan to speculate that humans developed the ability to consume alcohol at least at the same time as their gorilla primate cousins, meaning at least 10 million years ago. This enzyme is also found in our more recent evolutionary ancestors, including the chimpanzee and the bonobo.

What was happening on the planet 10 million years ago when humans evolved so that this enzyme was plentiful in their bodies? This was the Middle Miocene Period, a time of rapid environmental change in which the fragmented forests of East Africa—where humans evolved—were giving way to grasslands. Our ancestors primarily ate tree fruit and lived most of their lives in trees just prior to this time period. However, during the Middle Miocene Period they began spending more time on the ground and this is where they undoubtedly found fallen, spoiling fruit, loaded with yeast and fermented alcohol. Those of our ancestors who had that important ADH4 enzyme in their bodies could eat this alcohol-laden fruit without getting sick, gaining crucial additional calories that helped them survive. Those without that enzyme in their bodies were hobbled with a more restricted diet, and, thus, were much less likely to survive when healthy fruit was scarce. Our human ancestors may even have enjoyed the intoxicating effect that consuming such fruit had on their minds. Millions of years later, when humans developed the ability to make and use tools, they most likely took yeast and began deliberately making beers, wines and spirits. The rest is history.



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