Studying ancient human oral microbiomes could yield insights into the evolutionary history of noncommunicable diseases

Abigail S. Gancz, Laura S. Weyrich

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) have played a critical role in shaping human evolution and societies. Despite the exceptional impact of NCDs economically and socially, little is known about the prevalence or impact of these diseases in the past as most do not leave distinguishing features on the human skeleton and are not directly associated with unique pathogens. The inability to identify NCDs in antiquity precludes researchers from investigating how changes in diet, lifestyle, and environments modulate NCD risks in specific populations and from linking evolutionary processes to modern health patterns and disparities. In this review, we highlight how recent advances in ancient DNA (aDNA) sequencing and analytical methodologies may now make it possible to reconstruct NCD-related oral microbiome traits in past populations, thereby providing the first proxies for ancient NCD risk. First, we review the direct and indirect associations between modern oral microbiomes and NCDs, specifically cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus, rheumatoid arthritis, and Alzheimer's disease. We then discuss how oral microbiome features associated with NCDs in modern populations may be used to identify previously unstudied sources of morbidity and mortality differences in ancient groups. Finally, we conclude with an outline of the challenges and limitations of employing this approach, as well as how they might be circumvented. While significant experimental work is needed to verify that ancient oral microbiome markers are indeed associated with quantifiable health and survivorship outcomes, this new approach is a promising path forward for evolutionary health research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number109
StatePublished - 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • Pharmacology, Toxicology and Pharmaceutics(all)


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