Infectious disease in the Pleistocene: Old friends or old foes?
The impact of endemic and epidemic disease on humans has traditionally been seen as a comparatively recent historical phenomenon associated with the Neolithisation of human groups, an increase in population size led by sedentarism, and increasing contact with domesticated animals as well as species occupying opportunistic symbiotic and ectosymbiotic relationships with humans. The orthodox approach is that Neolithisation created the conditions for increasing population size able to support a reservoir of infectious disease sufficient to act as selective pressure. This orthodoxy is the result of an overly simplistic reliance on skeletal data assuming that no skeletal lesions equated to a healthy individual, underpinned by the assumption that hunter-gatherer groups were inherently healthy while agricultural groups acted as infectious disease reservoirs. The work of van Blerkom, Am. J. Phys. Anthropol., vol. suppl 37 (2003), Wolfe et al., Nature, vol. 447 (2007) and Houldcroft and Underdown, Am. J. Phys. Anthropol., vol. 160, (2016) has changed this landscape by arguing that humans and pathogens have long been fellow travelers. The package of infectious diseases experienced by our ancient ancestors may not be as dissimilar to modern infectious diseases as was once believed. The importance of DNA, from ancient and modern sources, to the study of the antiquity of infectious disease, and its role as a selective pressure cannot be overstated. Here we consider evidence of ancient epidemic and endemic infectious diseases with inferences from modern and ancient human and hominin DNA, and from circulating and extinct pathogen genomes. We argue that the pandemics of the past are a vital tool to unlock the weapons needed to fight pandemics of the future.