I’ve never been able to look an ape, monkey or chimpanzee in the face since I saw that memorable 1968 film, Planet of the Apes. I thought that if Charlton Heston couldn’t completely defeat the apes after he had done so well as Moses in The Ten Commandments with God on his side, then what hope had I if confronted by a simian, albeit distant, cousin?
The fact is that the evidence is mounting that those whom we have carelessly dismissed as the lower primates in the past are evolving faster than we might imagine.
I’ve always considered the enjoyment of a refreshing drink to be a hallmark of a sophisticated civilisation so I had pause for worry when I read that a tribe of chimps in the west African country of Guinea not only like to get stuck into the booze but, by and large, do so in a rather more orderly and sociable way than many humans.
Local people harvest sugary sap from raffia palms by cutting a wedge into the tree and suspending a container beneath. Leaves are laid over the top to keep bugs out and, in a few weeks, a single tree can yield 50 litres of sap which ferments into quite a potent brew.
Now some of us will do almost anything to enjoy a drink and the resourceful chimps have worked out that by chewing a large leaf – often the one covering the container – into an absorbent sponge and plunging this improvised sponge into the fermented sap and then withdrawing it, they have got themselves moonshine.
Not for a moment would I think of this liquor as a fine vintage but it does pack a punch with an alcohol content of between 3.1% and 6.9% which is quite enough for a party to swing. Indeed, some of the more dedicated drinkers went quite ape.
According to one researcher, “Individuals either co-drank, with drinkers alternating dips of their leaf-sponges into the fermented palm, or one individual monopolised the container, whereas others waited their turn”. Commendably, there is no rough house behaviour which is more than I can say about some functions I attended in my youth when the drop that does you good was on offer.
The researchers found that drinking sessions began as early as 7am – nothing wrong with that I hear many say – and that males and females were equally keen to imbibe, not that should surprise anybody.
And they all had their limits – indeed, half of the 26 chimps observed were apparently teetotal – while others were more sociable to the point of being as sociable as a newt.
Kimberley Hockings, one of the authors of the study, said they couldn’t be sure if the chimps got drunk – no, really they couldn’t – although she did admit that one adult male instead of just going to bed spent an hour after a drinking session swinging from tree to tree “in an agitated manner”. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was singing, “Show me the way to go home, I’m tired and I want to go to bed, I had a little drink about an hour ago and its gone right to my head”.
Since your average male chimp weighs rather less than your average male human and a good deal less than your average middle-aged male drinker, the observable fact that they will soak up, on average, 85 millilitres of the demon drink in a single session – the equivalent of three pints of Stella Artois – shows that those with the taste are dedicated and committed.
That’s my kind of crowd – well, used to be. It’s years since I did any swinging and even when I did it wasn’t from tree to tree.
And these clever chimps have even worked out the right time to imbibe. Another researcher who really immersed herself in her work said the challenge with palm sap hooch was drinking it before it fermented too much and turned into vinegar. “It’s very nice when it’s fresh. It tastes like cider,” she said.
This fun crowd in Guinea must be very envious of their cousins, the green monkeys, living on the Caribbean island of St Kitts. These dissolute freeloaders are notorious for stealing tourists’ drinkies at every available opportunity and can get quite aggro if the taste doesn’t please the palate. Hissy fits, snarling and throwing the glass around in disgust are common behaviours and I bet they don’t even leave a tip for the waiter.
It seems that about 10 million years ago, our ancestors – and those of the apes – gained a genetic mutation that improved 40-fold our ability to break down ethanol (alcohol) which is really positive evolution.
I have reason to believe that my father’s family gained this genetic mutation about 11 million years ago – most of the males in his family have always been at the cutting edge of appreciation when it comes to the demon drink even if it has made monkeys of some of them.