Who likes sprouts? Thought not, and now it seems we’ve got a solid excuse for our parents when they try to force the fetid, vile veg down our throats – we’ve been programmed to hate them since we were Neanderthals! A new study by the Spanish National Research Council claims to have debunked a mystery of evolution this week, by discovering a gene which makes us dislike a bitter taste common in some food. The gene, which causes an adverse reaction to phenylthiocarbamite – or PTC as it’s mercifully known – has been present in hominids for nearly 50,000 years. The findings follow the sequencing of 48,000 year-old Neanderthal bones at El Sidron, northern Spain. The researchers claim the gene is there to prevent us from eating other toxic plants which contain PTC, but they are mystified as to why the Neanderthals they studied possessed a recessive variant – meaning they wouldn’t have been able to detect the taste.
“This indicates that variation in bitter taste perception predates the divergence of the lineages leading to Neanderthals and modern humans,” says the team’s report, published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters. “The sense of bitter taste protects us from ingesting toxic substances.” The recessive gene, however, has the team stumped: “This feature … is a mystery of evolution,” the report adds. “These (bitter) compounds can be toxic if ingested in large quantities, and it is therefore difficult to understand the evolutionary existence of individuals who cannot detect them.” The report gives modern man a unique look into his prehistoric past. And on a personal note it’s nice to think of Neanderthals spitting out sprouts in disgust, echoing the scene at Christmas dinner tables all over the world. There have been, however, some subtle changes in human diets over the years – only 9,000 years ago prehistoric Britons were tucking into succulent cuts of their own kind and a recent discovery on the Isle of Man suggests hazelnuts played an vital role in the diets of these cannibals’ contemporaries. Still, human and nuts or sprouts? Close call.
Image by Jane Hudson.