Traditional Values: Apparently getting drunk and making art predate humanity itself

It has been a busy couple of days in the study of mans early ancestors and it turns out that “man” discovered both alcohol and art long before we even became Homo sapiens.

Conventional wisdom holds that man discovered alcohol at about the same time we learned to store food, approximately 9,000 years ago. However, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, that estimate is off by about 10 million years.

The study authors identified a gene mutation which occurred about 10 million years ago that allowed our ancient ancestors to metabolize ethanol much more efficiently. This would have been long before our ancestors bore much resemblance to us, shortly after they moved down from the trees and began exploring the ground.

The mutation allowed early primates to eat rotten and fermented fruit which had fallen to the ground but it, obviously, had an additional benefit as well.

“If you were the ancestor without this new mutation in ADH4, the ethanol would quickly build up in your blood and you’d get inebriated much faster. You’d be a cheap date,” Matthew Carrigan told Science. Carrigan is a biologist at Santa Fe College in Gainesville and one of the authors of the paper.

So, it appears that humans fondness for alcohol was built into our DNA long before the first actual human appeared.

The second discovery this week was a doodle on a freshwater clam shell. The discovery was actually made in the 1890s but the shell sat in a museum until it was noticed and scrutinized by researchers. The doodle itself, sort of a zig zag pattern made with a clam shell, isn’t that spectacular. What is spectacular is that it is about half-a-million years old.

No other species of animal is known to create art for purely aesthetic purposes. This artwork predates the arrival of modern humans by a few hundred thousand years and appears to have been made by Homo erectus.

It is possible that the shell was not intended to be ‘art’ but it is difficult to think of a practical reason why the creator would have sat carving a pattern into a clam shell with a sharks tooth. More about that discovery is available at Nature.

This is purely speculation, but I find it unlikely that the clam shell represents the first piece of “art”. It seems incredibly unlikely that the being that carved the shell was the first, ever, to do it and that researchers managed to stumble across that first ever “artwork” by chance.

Whatever it is that causes us to create art and express ourselves is probably somewhere in our DNA as well.

At any rate, the next time someone starts talking to you about “traditional values”, ask them how far back those traditions go. Then pour yourself a drink and doodle something.

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