Controlled fire use in early humans might have triggered the evolutionary emergence of tuberculosis

Edited by Marcus W. Feldman, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, and approved June 17, 2016 (received for review February 25, 2016)
July 25, 2016
113 (32) 9051-9056


Tuberculosis is an ancient human disease that continues to affect millions of people worldwide. A crucial component of the origins of the tuberculosis bacterium remains a mystery: What were the conditions that precipitated its emergence as an obligate transmissible human pathogen? Here, we identify a connection between the emergence of tuberculosis and another major event in human prehistory, namely the discovery of controlled fire use. Our results have serious and cautionary implications for the emergence of new infectious diseases—feedback between cultural innovation and alteration of living conditions can catalyze unexpected changes with potentially devastating consequences lasting thousands of years.


Tuberculosis (TB) is caused by the Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex (MTBC), a wildly successful group of organisms and the leading cause of death resulting from a single bacterial pathogen worldwide. It is generally accepted that MTBC established itself in human populations in Africa and that animal-infecting strains diverged from human strains. However, the precise causal factors of TB emergence remain unknown. Here, we propose that the advent of controlled fire use in early humans created the ideal conditions for the emergence of TB as a transmissible disease. This hypothesis is supported by mathematical modeling together with a synthesis of evidence from epidemiology, evolutionary genetics, and paleoanthropology.

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This work was supported by the Australian Research Council through Grants FT140100398 (to M.M.T.) and FT12100168 (to D.C.).

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Supporting Information


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Published in

Go to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Vol. 113 | No. 32
August 9, 2016
PubMed: 27457933


Submission history

Published online: July 25, 2016
Published in issue: August 9, 2016


  1. tuberculosis
  2. pathogen evolution
  3. cultural evolution
  4. epidemiology
  5. mathematical modeling


This work was supported by the Australian Research Council through Grants FT140100398 (to M.M.T.) and FT12100168 (to D.C.).


This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.



Rebecca H. Chisholm
School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney 2052, Australia;
Evolution & Ecology Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Sydney 2052, Australia;
James M. Trauer
School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Monash University, Melbourne 3004, Australia;
Darren Curnoe
Palaeontology, Geobiology and Earth Archives Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Sydney 2052, Australia
Mark M. Tanaka1 [email protected]
School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney 2052, Australia;
Evolution & Ecology Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Sydney 2052, Australia;


To whom correspondence should be addressed. Email: [email protected].
Author contributions: R.H.C. and M.M.T. formulated the model; M.M.T. coordinated the study; R.H.C. analyzed data; and R.H.C., J.M.T., D.C., and M.M.T. wrote the paper.

Competing Interests

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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    Controlled fire use in early humans might have triggered the evolutionary emergence of tuberculosis
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    • No. 32
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