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Ancient mutation gave us an evolutionary advantage over Neanderthals


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A genetic mutation may have given our ancestors an evolutionary advantage in the kitchen, new research suggests.

According to research from Pennsylvania State University, this mutation made them more immune to the effects of toxic chemicals produced by cooking meat and burning wood, say scientists. So it's seems we've always had a penchant for barbequed meat.

In fact modern humans, Homo sapiens, are the only primates known to carry the mutation.

Food cooking on a fire
(Burkhardt – Mayer – Fotografie GbR)

Neanderthals may not have been so lucky. If they lacked the same protection, inhaling smoke and eating burned meat could have damaged their health and fertility, the experts believe.

This may be the reason the modern human population grew while Neanderthals died out around 40,000 years ago.

Lead researcher Professor Gary Perdew said: “For Neanderthals, inhaling smoke and eating charcoal-broiled meat, they would be exposed to multiple sources of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are known to be carcinogens and lead to cell death at high concentrations.

“The evolutionary hypothesis is, if Neanderthals were exposed to large amounts of these smoke-derived toxins, it could lead to respiratory problems, decreased reproductive capacity for women and increased susceptibility to respiratory viruses among pre-adolescents, while humans would exhibit decreased toxicity because they are more slowly metabolising these compounds.”

(Peter Byrne/PA)

There is evidence that both modern humans and Neanderthals used fire for cooking and keeping warm.

Co-author Dr George Perry, also from Pennsylvania State University, said: “Our hominin ancestors – they would technically not be called humans at that time – were likely using fire at least a million years ago, and some infer an earlier control and use of fire approximately two million years ago.

“Cooking with fire could have allowed our ancestors to incorporate a broader range of foods in our diets, for example, by softening roots and tubers that might otherwise have been hard to chew. Cooking could also help increase the digestibility of other foods, both in chewing time and reduced energetic investment in digestion.”

The same mutation may have given modern humans greater resistance to cigarette smoke.

“Our tolerance has allowed us to pick up bad habits,” said Prof Perdew.

So it seems we've mutated to a stage where we can eat more cooked meat and inhale more smoke. Evolution works in funny ways.

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