How Our Alcohol Habits Started

This article first appeared in and is written by Emi Boscamp


We’ve been drinking booze since we figured out how to brew it, right? Wouldn’t that make sense? Well, no, researchers say, we didn’t start drinking it for recreational purposes; it was actually a result of evolution.

A recent study suggests that our ancestors may have unknowingly started to develop an alcohol habit about 10 million years ago.

Out of necessity, our ancestors acquired an ability to take advantage of rotting, fermented fruit that fell onto the forest floor. But why does it matter when this happened? The researchers say that it could help them figure out when the first humans transitioned from living in trees to living on the ground.

“A lot of aspects about the modern human condition — everything from back pain to ingesting too much salt, sugar and fat — goes back to our evolutionary history,” said lead study author Matthew Carrigan. “We wanted to understand more about the modern human condition with regards to ethanol [alcohol].”
In order to understand how humans once gained the alcohol-digesting skill, scientists focused on the genes that code for the digestive enzymes that first encounter alcohol once its consumed — called ADH4 enzymes — which are found in a primate’s stomach, throat, and tongue.

They studied the ADH4 genes from 28 different mammals from over nearly 70 million years of evolution and found that there was a single genetic mutation 10 million years ago that bestowed our booze-soaking ability unto the human body.

So instead of being wasteful, our ancient relatives took what they could get — even if that meant ingesting a handful of rancid berries. For their daring spirits, we can either thank or blame them. On the one hand, they allowed us to reap the benefits from drinking in moderation, but at the same time, they invited the health problems caused by drinking in excess.

What do you think of the findings?


Emi Boscamp is an Associate Editor at MindBodyGreen. She received a BA in English and minors in Spanish and Art History from Cornell University.

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