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Microbes in our ancestors’ stomachs helped them adapt to new areas

Have gut bacteria, will travel.

  • There is a wide variety in the populations of bacteria found in the human gut microbiome around the world.
  • Researchers believe the microbiome’s ability to adapt helped early humans to survive and spread around the globe by allowing them to digest the new foods they encountered as they travelled.
  • Our ancestors could even have used these microbes to ferment food.

Our feet may be made for walking but it’s our gut bacteria that enabled us to spread so far around the globe, according to a new study. Research carried out by a team of scientists at North Carolina State University in the US suggests our microbiome could be the crucial factor that allowed us to adapt and survive in new locations.

The hypotheses suggested by this study still need to be tested by paleoanthropologists, ecologists and medical researchers but Dr Rob Dunn, the biologist who led the team, hopes it will shift the emphasis of future research.

“We’re hoping the findings will change some questions and that other researchers will study the consequences of changes in the human microbiome,” says Dr Dunn. “Hopefully the next decade will see more focus on microbes in our past and less on sharp rocks.”

Read more about your gut microbiome:

By using data from previously published studies of gut bacteria found in humans and other primates, the team found that there are big differences in the function and composition of a person’s microbiome depending on their location, their diet and their lifestyle.

The team thinks that when our ancestors arrived in new places and encountered new foods, their gut bacteria’s ability to adapt is what allowed them to detoxify and digest them.

But the team also believes that our ancestors learnt to process food by employing the bacteria from on and in their bodies to initiate the fermentation process. Similar methods are still in use today: bacteria in saliva are used to produce alcoholic drinks in Latin America and skin bacteria are involved in the production of some soft cheeses and sourdough breads.

By using their bacteria to ferment certain meats, tubers and roots our ancestors were able to enrich their vitamin content and preserve them to provide a lasting source of nutrition in a particular location.

Read more about bacteria:

“We outsourced our body microbes into our foods,” says Dr Dunn. “That could well be the most important tool we ever invented. But it’s a hard tool to see in the past and so we don’t talk about it much. Stone artefacts preserve but fish or beer fermented in a hole in the ground doesn’t.”

Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London and author of The Diet Myth, echoes the sentiment. “The hypothesis that microbes helped our ancestors adapt to new environments is compelling, though hard to prove. Our gut microbes are the most unique and modifiable part of our bodies and will rapidly react to new foods and environment.


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