Our Genes & Alcohol
According to the research, a common human ancestor to humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas developed the ability to digest alcohol over 10 million years ago — far before humans learned to manufacture it.
What does this mean? Well, probably that alcohol was a part of human diets earlier than we’ve thought — and, more tellingly, that alcohol may have played a part in our species’ survival.
DNA Testing Reveals Capacity for Digesting Alcohol
Thanks to genetic signatures passed on from our ancestors, we can deduce information about ancestral feeding habits. For example, researchers have been able to pinpoint when the human ability to consume milk arose, thanks to the “lactase persistence” gene variant that cropped up about 7500 years ago.
Now, genetic research has detected when the ability to digest alcohol emerged, and it was before alcohol was invented. The gene actually allowed human ancestors to eat overripe, fermenting fruit — an abundant food source with few competitors.
Not only would this gene variant have upped our ancestors’ survival odds, it also may have marked a move from more arboreal (tree-bound) living to terrestrial (ground-based).
Modern Alcohol Consumption
There are a number of enzymes involved in the digestion of alcohol; ADH4 is the primary means. But just because our ancestors possessed this enzyme doesn’t mean that drinking is an evolutionary advantage.
ADH4 and other enzymes aid in alcohol digestion by converting alcohol into acetaldehye, a chemical that causes flushed skin and headaches. Sound familiar? Those are all hangover symptoms — and they’re actually an evolutionary adaptation in response to human’s proclivity for alcohol abuse, which arose after we learned to produce highly-concentrated forms of alcohol such as hard liquors. Some variants of ADH4 are even connected to drug and alcohol dependence.
Don’t Get Dependent
Just because our ancestors had the ability to digest alcohol a millenia ago doesn’t mean that modern-day humans should over-indulge.