Human adaptation to diet and infectious disease

A nineteenth-century human skull from London


We are investigating the impact of technological, demographic and social changes on human disease burdens since the origins of agriculture.

The research addresses the long-held theory that people living in cities experience higher rates of death due to disease and poor diet.

Over the past 10,000 years communities have become larger and population density has increased. At the same time, the development of agriculture has increased our reliance on a small set of food items, particularly cereal crops.

Individuals who were genetically capable of dealing with a carbohydrate-rich diet and infectious disease might have been more likely to survive these changes.


We hope to establish the degree to which humans have evolved to meet the demands of modern urban living and how those evolutionary adaptations have shaped modern disease vulnerabilities. This will help us to explain differences in human populations across the globe.

Geographical distribution of populations. Right-hand squares indicate the age of the first regional settlement. Left-hand squares indicate the frequency of an allele associated with natural resistance to intracellular pathogens, such as tuberculosis and leprosy. © Ian Barnes



We are developing mathematical models to better understand genetic data from modern and ancient humans in Britain.

Modern DNA

We will compare modern DNA data from public databases with archaeological information about changes in the environment such as the time since the first urban settlement.

Ancient DNA

We will extract and sequence ancient DNA from human remains from British archaeological sites. Ancient DNA sampling will focus on periods where there is evidence of significant relevant changes in lifestyle, for example the shift from hunting and gathering that defines the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition.

Ancient DNA data will be compared against estimated timings for relevant historical events, such as the arrival of domesticated cereals, the start of dairy farming and the establishment of large urban settlements.

This data may also reveal the extent of historic migrations into Britain. The influence of human movement on the spread of farming in the Early Neolithic is of particular interest. 

Principal Investigators

Project summary

  • Focus: The impact of technological, demographic and social changes on human disease burdens during the last 10,000 years
  • Funding: Wellcome Trust
  • Start date: November 2013
  • End date: November 2016


Funded by

UK biodiversity research

We are creating molecular and digital tools to explore undiscovered biodiversity.


Studying the growth and development of early humans and modern people worldwide.

Palaeontology collections

The geographic, stratigraphic and historical coverage of fossils in the collection make it globally important.