Developing a tolerance to alcohol may have been crucial in allowing human ancestors to survive millions of years ago, according to a new book.
Food sources were often hard to come by, with apes and monkeys locked in an enduring battle over fruit.
Monkeys seemingly had the upper hand, with the ability to process and digest unripe fruit. Something apes — and later, humans — struggled to do.
While ripe fruit was the ideal food source, overripe fruit was inedible to both monkeys and apes due to the presence of alcohol which is produced after they fall to the floor and begin fermenting.
One particular group of apes evolved the ability to process ethanol, allowing them to eat overripe fruit and relish the valuable calories hidden within.
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Building up a tolerance for alcohol may have been crucial in allowing human ancestors to survive, scientists claim (stock image)
WHAT IS ALCOHOL?
Alcohol is often associated with the drink humans indulge in at a pub or club and results in merriment and intoxication.
The chemical in these beverages responsible for the feelings of being ‘drunk’ is ethanol.
Ethanol is a chemical with the chemical formula C2H5OH.
Ethanol falls under the category of alcohol, which falls under the broader term hydrocarbon.
These are naturally occurring chemicals found and produced by various biological and chemical processes.
An alcohol is anything with a carbon backbone bonded to nothing but hydrogen atoms except for one connection, where an oxygen atom is interjected.
Ethanol, which is in our drinks, has two carbon atoms in its core, but methanol (1), propanol (3), butanol (4) and pentanol (5) all exist.
None of these however, are safe to ingest.
This potentially saved the prehistoric apes from extinction and allowed them to survive.
Over ensuing millennia, this ape that thrived on alcohol evolved. It became bipedal, developed language and began farming. Humanity was born.
A book, penned by Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford and Dr Kim Hockings of the University of Exeter, reveals the complex relationships humans have always had with alcohol.
Titled ‘Humans and alcohol: a long and social affair’, it reveals the origins of our obsession with ethanol, and details its integral role in modern society.
‘Even today we see great apes eating fermented fruit and even drinking palm wine produced by humans,’ said co-author Dr Kim Hockings, of Centre for Ecology and Conservation on the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall.
‘It’s hard to be certain of why they do this, and this reflects the complex history of our own relationship with alcohol.
‘One interesting point is that the alcohol level in fallen fruit is usually about 1-4 per cent – something like weak beer – yet much of the alcohol consumed by humans today is far stronger than this.
‘As with other substances like salt and sugar, the problem may not be the substance itself but the concentrations we now have access to.’
In the book, which is available on January 5, the authors touch on the topic of the bad image alcohol has in modern society.
Many view it as a ‘social issue’ plaguing the modern world, but the authors argue alcohol is as crucial to human culture now as it was millions of years ago.
‘Alcohol has played an important role in how humans have used feasting to create and maintain their relationships,’ adds Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford.
‘Across cultures and in different time periods, it has consistently been a major part of the way humans socialise with each other.
‘Increasingly, alcohol is viewed as a medical issue, but alcohol abuse is only a small part of a much wider social pattern of alcohol use by humans.’
Many other species are known to consume and process alcohol, and the researchers’ next goal is to test ethanol levels in wild fruits.
Miocene apes, those that lived millions of years ago and first began eating the ethanol-infused overripe fruit, probably resembled modern day apes, such as gorillas (pictured) and chimpanzees
Titled ‘Humans and alcohol: a long and social affair’, the book (pictured) reveals the origins of our obsession with ethanol, and details its integral role in modern society