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Our Ape Ancestors Hit the Booze 10 Million Years Ago

Scientists have traced back humans' ability to metabolize alcohol to our primate ancestors.


Nothing like tossing back a few fermented
fruits after a hard day's evolution. Photo via

By Bryan Le


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Humankind has been hitting the sauce since back when we were apes, new research suggests. Scientists at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Florida have traced the DNA evolution of an alcohol-metabolyzing enzyme, ADH4, back to our primate ancestors—suggesting that apes were able to metabolize ethanol (the main ingredient in booze) roughly 10 million years ago. The researchers hypothesize that once our ancestors first came down from the trees to live on the ground, they had to adapt to eating food from the ground—including fruit that had fermented after falling from trees. The primates who developed the ability to break down ethanol in the alcoholic fruit would have survived better than those who couldn’t. This history also explains why tree-dwelling primates, like orangutans, are generally unable to metabolize ethanol. The theory is difficult to prove, but scientists hope more will be revealed. “There’s very little fossil evidence from the general time period when humans, gorillas and chimpanzees last shared a common ancestor,” says Jeremy DeSilva, a biological anthropologist at Boston University. “This is cool work—we’ll be able to evaluate it with better evidence as we find more fossils from that time period.”

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