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Older, still

December 4, 2014

Though a layman, I would summarize anthropology over the last twenty years thusly: everything we think makes us distinctively human has been discovered to be much, much older than once was thought, mostly predating our own species. Two recent stories highlight that trend. The first is the discovery of shells half a million years old, exhibiting tool marks where Homo erectus broke out the delectable mollusc inside, and one showing in addition some possibly decorative or symbolic doodle. Even doodles would indicate a kind of thinking not previously attributed to Homo erectus. (Cite.)

Might those early hominids have had wine with their shellfish? Much further back in time, ten millions years earlier, our pre-hominid ancestors evolved the ability to metabolize ethanol more efficiently than other animals, including most other apes. Though not every genetic change is adaptive, it’s easy to imagine that this one spread through the population from a variety of advantages. (Cite.)

But — I can hear the objection! — isn’t it ridiculous to think that Homo erectus made purposeful use of fermentation so long in the past, when the earliest known wine residue is a mere 6,000 years old? Maybe. The thing to keep in mind is that archaeologists find only what is preserved. I suspect people were fermenting stuff in gourds and leather bags long before wine was poured into ceramic vessels. Those don’t survive the millennia. Ah, but that’s people. Us. What about Homo erectus, whom none of us would invite home, were they still around? Who knows? Is purposeful fermentation all that much a stretch for a hominid smart enough to gather and shell oysters with a tool, and then use the shell as an ornament or token? 500,000 years is a stretch. 50,000, not so much. That trick had to be discovered before our ancestors started island hopping. Sailors need their wine.

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