Migrating microbes: what pathogens can tell us about population movements and human evolution

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Houldcroft, CJ 
Ramond, J-B 
Rifkin, RF 
Underdown, SJ 

Background: The biology of human migration can be observed from the co-evolutionary relationship with infectious diseases. While many pathogens are brief, unpleasant visitors to human bodies, others have the ability to become life-long human passengers. The story of a pathogen’s genetic code may, therefore, provide insight into the history of its human host. The evolution and distribution of disease in Africa is of particular interest, because of the deep history of human evolution in Africa, the presence of a variety of non-human primates, and tropical reservoirs of emerging infectious diseases.

Methods: This study explores which pathogens leave traces in the archaeological record, and whether there are realistic prospects that these pathogens can be recovered from sub-Saharan African archaeological contexts.

Results: Three stories are then presented of germs on a journey. The first is the story of HIV’s spread on the back of colonialism and the railway networks over the last 150 years. The second involves the spread of Schistosoma mansoni, a parasite which shares its history with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the origins of fresh-water fishing. Finally, we discuss the tantalising hints of hominin migration and interaction found in the genome of human herpes simplex virus 2.

Conclusions: Evidence from modern African pathogen genomes can provide data on human behaviour and migration in deep time and contribute to the improvement of human quality-of-life and longevity.

archaeology, migration, ancient DNA, pathogens, microbial archaeology, human evolution, sub Saharan Africa
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Annals of Human Biology
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Taylor & Francis
CJH was funded by the University of Cambridge. JBR was funded by the University of Pretoria and the South African National Research Foundation (ERTTG 2016 grant UID 105197). RFR was funded by the National Geographic Society/Waitt Foundation Scientific Exploration Grant (Nr. W420–15) and the University of Pretoria. SJU was funded by Oxford Brookes University.