The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)

New perspective on the evolution of infectious disease


Anthropology Department, Drew University

Friday 11:45-12:00, Grand Ballroom II Add to calendar

Developments in microbiology and genomics suggest it is time for a shift in perspective on human disease evolution. The traditional view as held by most anthropologists is that new human infections evolved via interspecies transfer of acute diseases from other animals, mostly during the Neolithic, with infectious disease, especially viral, of little importance to human evolution before this. This contrasts with recent work in microbial genetics indicating that a number of disease agents were ancient pathogens of hominins and in some cases the transfer was from humans to other animals. Also, recognition of the human microbiome and the observation that a substantial portion of the human genome is of viral origin further suggest that we shift the way we think about infectious disease evolution. Microbes, viruses, and other parasites were long-time inhabitants of hominin bodies, with diseases evolving through a waxing and waning of virulence as context and selection pressures (especially transmission opportunities) changed. Acute diseases evolved from persistent infections capable of being maintained in small populations and would have been abundant in all of our hominin ancestors. A number of examples are discussed.

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