You’ve probably heard buzzing about fish oil and its health benefits over the years. After all, it has been recognized as a treatment for arthritis for nearly 200 years, and many of our grandmothers and great grandmothers urged us to take our “brain food”, i.e. cod liver oil, so that we’d grow to be strong and smart. But did you know that fish oil actually contributed to the development and evolution of modern humans?
Humankind’s evolutionary path split from our ape-like ancestors 5 million years ago. Some 150,000 years ago, the intelligence of our species skyrocketed as humans evolved, eventually leading to humankind today. Despite the fact that there is less than 2% variability between our genetics and those of our closest evolutionary cousins (the other primates), they do not share our level of advanced cognitive functioning. So what exactly was going on 150,000 years ago that prompted this change?
At the time, earth's climate was much cooler, and our ancestors were isolated mostly into 2 groups: the Neanderthals inhabited Europe, while our direct ancestors remained in Africa. Neanderthals adapted to the colder climate by evolving physical traits that better conserved heat, such as increased muscle mass, whereas our ancestors in Africa simply began to die off. Our ancestors’ numbers dwindled down so significantly, in fact, that only a few thousand remained, pushing them to the brink of extinction. It’s at this time that a monumental turning point occurred, and modern humans begin to flourish. Genetic research has led scientists to theorize that the consumption of high quantities of fish might have been part of this turning point, and one of the underlying reasons behind the evolution of modern humans. In other words, our ancestors stumbled onto that “brain food” some of our great grandmothers rambled on about!
Research suggests that this “brain food” was first adopted in the East African Rift Valley when our ancestors came across mollusques buried in the river banks. The omega-3 fatty acids found in this food seems to have been one of the factors contributing to the development of the frontal cortex, which gave rise to the development of advanced intelligence. This is a significant achievement, considering the fact that, for the previous 3 million years, our ancestors had lived without any significant intellectual developments. 50,000 years later, our fledgeling species began to break away from South Africa to conquer the rest of the world. When the otherwise successfully adapted Neanderthals met up with this new species, they were overtaken, and eventually faded out some 40,000 years ago with the other 97 percent of unsuccessful species before them.