The origin of human pathogens: evaluating the role of agriculture and domestic animals in the evolution of human disease

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2006 Aug;81(3):369-82. doi: 10.1017/S1464793106007020. Epub 2006 May 4.


Many significant diseases of human civilization are thought to have arisen concurrently with the advent of agriculture in human society. It has been hypothesised that the food produced by farming increased population sizes to allow the maintenance of virulent pathogens, i.e. civilization pathogens, while domestic animals provided sources of disease to humans. To determine the relationship between pathogens in humans and domestic animals, I examined phylogenetic data for several human pathogens that are commonly evolutionarily linked to domestic animals: measles, pertussis, smallpox, tuberculosis, taenid worms, and falciparal malaria. The majority are civilization pathogens, although I have included others whose evolutionary origins have traditionally been ascribed to domestic animals. The strongest evidence for a domestic-animal origin exists for measles and pertussis, although the data do not exclude a non-domestic origin. As for the other pathogens, the evidence currently available makes it difficult to determine if the domestic-origin hypothesis is supported or refuted; in fact, intriguing data for tuberculosis and taenid worms suggests that transmission may occur as easily from humans to domestic animals. These findings do not abrogate the importance of agriculture in disease transmission; rather, if anything, they suggest an alternative, more complex series of effects than previously elucidated. Rather than domestication, the broader force for human pathogen evolution could be ecological change, namely anthropogenic modification of the environment. This is supported by evidence that many current emerging infectious diseases are associated with human modification of the environment. Agriculture may have changed the transmission ecology of pre-existing human pathogens, increased the success of pre-existing pathogen vectors, resulted in novel interactions between humans and wildlife, and, through the domestication of animals, provided a stable conduit for human infection by wildlife diseases.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture*
  • Animal Diseases / transmission*
  • Animals
  • Animals, Domestic / microbiology*
  • Animals, Domestic / parasitology*
  • Animals, Domestic / virology
  • Communicable Diseases, Emerging / transmission*
  • Communicable Diseases, Emerging / veterinary
  • Disease Reservoirs / veterinary
  • Disease Transmission, Infectious / veterinary
  • Global Health
  • Humans
  • Species Specificity
  • Zoonoses*