We oft think of the invention of the wheel as the pivotal moment in human evolution, or perhaps those more academically inclined might argue written language was the crucial anthropological event, but neither written language nor the wheel were universally discovered and adapted. Many great civilizations have existed without the wheel or independently created written word; the Inca were one of the most technically advanced pre-Industrial societies and had neither. Perhaps mathematics is the true key to civilization?
There is one thing ubiquitous to human evolution on a global scale. One thing more pervasive and individually created throughout human history regardless of time and place on the evolutionary scale; alcohol.
Archeologists worldwide consistently uncover vessels used to brew beer or ferment fruit for wine. 9,000 years ago, the Chinese began making a form of rice wine with honey and fruit; in the Zagros Mountains of Iran, grapes were one of the earliest fruits to be domesticated, and wine was made as early as 7,400 years ago; throughout the Andes, chicha de jora, a corn beer, has been prepared and consumed for millennia; the Egyptians had industrial-scale breweries to satisfy the builders of the Great Pyramids at Giza.
While anthropologists have long argued as to the role alcohol played in the social contract and the move towards ‘civilization’, did humans mimic birds who can be observed eating rotten fruit? Was it the wine which fueled Socratic symposiums? Yet we live in the twenty-first century and advancements in genetic science have literally shocked the humanities and negated centuries of social science work.
We can now unequivocally say that alcohol played the largest role in our evolution and literally enabled our primate ancestors to leave the tree we once swung from. In fact, anthropologists now posit that alcohol was the catalyst for agricultural communities and perhaps even the written word.
Alas, I am getting ahead of myself; let’s break down the biochemistry of fermentation (of which ethanol, the only potable alcohol, is a by-product) and the pharmacokinetics of ethanol (and it’s advantages to humans), before we get to the conclusion.
The fermentation process
Yeast is a naturally occurring microorganism, a member of the fungi family, which can usually be found on sugar-rich foods.
Since the dawn of humanity, on every continent save Antarctica, we have fermented whatever sugar or starch was readily available (even horse milk in Central Asia) to form yeast – this yeast can be then be processed as a bicarbonate and used in baking.
But when we allow yeast to ferment in anaerobic, or low oxygen, conditions, the process of it’s metabolization of carbohydrates produces ethanol.
Ethanol plays more than just a role in human psychic consciousness, ethanol production by yeast is a form of chemical warfare—it’s toxic to other microbes that compete with them for sugar. That antimicrobial effect explains alcohol’s historic use in medicine as a disinfectant and, as the antimicrobial effect further benefits the drinker, fermented beverages, including beer and wine, were often safer for consumption than water in pre-sanitation conditions.
When you add the nutritional and caloric value of these unpasteurized brews, you begin to truly understand how alcohol was also much healthier than other consumable liquids and akin to modern vitamin or energy drinks (*this is not an endorsement of such drinks, remember water & kombucha, a naturally fermented and unpasteurized tea, are best for your health).
Metabolizing alcohol – a human condition
While anecdotal tales of drunken monkeys may be pervasive, there is absolutely zero scientific evidence other animals drink to intoxication – this is a purely human condition which arose with mass production of alcohol. Yet, how did humans evolve with this metabolic ability while other animals have not?
Geneticists are now able to tell us that the critical gene mutation, allowing for metabolism of ethanol 40 times faster, occurred in homo sapiens last common ancestor with African apes; recently, we’ve dated the mutation in the ADH4 gene to at least ten million years ago.
That’s right folks – not only are we genetically predisposed to alcohol consumption, but modern humans could actually be called homo imbibus as it is our ability to gain the caloric advantage of quickly digestible fruit which was the catalyst for our primate ancestors moving out of trees and further afield.
In the following months, we’ll discuss the societal implications of alcohol consumption, define substance use, misuse, and abuse, and examine various policies from prohibition to Doug Ford’s beer emergency.
An Opioid Update
On June 17, 2019, the provincial government released opioid overdose statistics for July 2017 to June 30, 2018 (previously, Ontario stats were made available on a quarterly basis to assist with real time data sets for service providers). In Opioid Mortality Surveillance Report we are able to see what harm reduction and outreach workers already knew: Niagara, with three percent of Ontario’s total population, is number one for opioid overdose mortality.
St Catharines is home to one of the few provincially funded (or so they say….) Overdose Prevention Sites; by the end of March, over 50 overdoses were reversed since doors opened in December. Yet of the 496 suspected opioid overdoses in Niagara in 2018, only 41% of EMS calls occurred in St. Catharines while 27% occurred in Niagara Falls.
In 2017, Niagara emergency rooms treated 521 opioid overdoses (approx 43 per month), in 2018, that number ballooned to 700 emergency room visits (approx 58 per month); considering Niagara EMS responded to 289 suspected opioid overdoses between January and May, one Overdose Prevention Site is not enough.
We must do more to reduce the harm associated with opioids; imagine if Doug Ford used the billion dollars to break the beer store contract and instead invested in mental health, harm reduction, and addiction, services. Whether we realize it or not, we all love someone who struggles with substance use.