When malaria first began to infect humans is something of a mystery. It was a mystery that I hadn’t thought about much before now because … well, I don’t know, it just never occurred to me.
However, recently a colleague mentioned that there was a connection between it and the beginnings of agriculture. Despite the fact that I should know better, I dismissed the idea out of hand. That’s too recent, I thought. There’s no way that could be the case.
The idea of a connection was originally suggested by Frank Livingstone, who “suggested that Plasmodium falciparum (which is by far the deadliest of the several parasites that cause human malaria) had jumped into Homo sapiens from chimpanzees. He speculated that the rise of agriculture had led to human encroachment on wild forests, giving the chimp version of the bug, P. reichenowi, the chance to find a new host.” 1
Despite my dismissal, the idea did come back to me late last night and I started to look into what was published on the subject. The first thing I found was one of Scientific American’s 60 second science podcasts on the possible connection between recent deforestation in South America and a resurgence in Malaria. “Researchers looked at stats for 2006 …[and] compared those cases to deforestation in the same health districts over the previous 10 years. They found that a loss of just four percent of forest cover was associated with nearly 50 percent more malaria cases.”2
As always, correlation isn’t causation, but something is happening, and because Malaria is more common in open areas than forests, causation isn’t much of a stretch. And, if malaria does increase when land is cleared of forest, the connection to the advent of agriculture may not be far fetched at all.
Humans started domesticating animals and farming the land about 10,000 years ago , so we do have a date to shoot for in our estimate. The question is, ‘was malaria widespread prior to ~8000 B.C.E.?”
One way to ask this question was to question whether Malaria was with us before we (humans) left Africa, or more recently. This moves the timeframe back to about 50,000 years ago (a reasonable landmark prior to agriculture). One way to ask this question is to look at diversity of the parasite’s genes. Just as the greatest diversity among humans occurs in Africa with less diverse groups coming out from this population, the same should be true of the microbe.
“The researchers found that genetic diversity did indeed decrease at greater distances from Africa. The correlation is very strong, says lead author Francois Balloux of the MRC Centre for Outbreak Analysis and Modelling in London, and the pattern matches human migration out of Africa, which scientists believe started some 50,000 to 60,000 years ago.”3 ( See here and here)
For a visual representation of the genetic argument for the origin of malaria, see the map below:
Genetic Variation of Malaria (grey dots represent possible sites of origin)
Whether Livingstone’s idea may be correct or not probably has no bearing on the idea that human disease originated in chimps and does nothing to undermine the possibility of a connection between recent outbreaks of disease and clearing land for farms.
1. “The source of malaria” The Economist. Aug 4th 2009.
2. “Plasmodium falciparum Accompanied the Human Expansion out of Africa “Kazuyuki Tanabe et al. Current Biology, Volume 20, Issue 14, 1283-1289, 17 June 2010
3. “When Humans Left Africa, Malaria Came Along” MARTIN ENSERINK. Science Now. 18 June 2010.