Nutrition and its role in human evolution

W. P.T. James* (Corresponding Author), R. J. Johnson, J. R. Speakman, D. C. Wallace, G. Frühbeck, P. O. Iverson, P. J. Stover

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

40 Citations (Scopus)
11 Downloads (Pure)


Our understanding of human evolution has improved rapidly over recent decades, facilitated by large-scale cataloguing of genomic variability amongst both modern and archaic humans. It seems clear that the evolution of the ancestors of chimpanzees and hominins separated 7–9 million years ago with some migration out of Africa by the earlier hominins; Homo sapiens slowly emerged as climate change resulted in drier, less forested African conditions. The African populations expanded and evolved in many different conditions with slow mutation and selection rates in the human genome, but with much more rapid mutation occurring in mitochondrial DNA. We now have evidence stretching back 300 000 years of humans in their current form, but there are clearly four very different large African language groups that correlate with population DNA differences. Then, about 50 000–100 000 years ago a small subset of modern humans also migrated out of Africa resulting in a persistent signature of more limited genetic diversity amongst non-African populations. Hybridization with archaic hominins occurred around this time such that all non-African modern humans possess some Neanderthal ancestry and Melanesian populations additionally possess some Denisovan ancestry. Human populations both within and outside Africa also adapted to diverse aspects of their local environment including altitude, climate, UV exposure, diet and pathogens, in some cases leaving clear signatures of patterns of genetic variation. Notable examples include haemoglobin changes conferring resistance to malaria, other immune changes and the skin adaptations favouring the synthesis of vitamin D. As humans migrated across Eurasia, further major mitochondrial changes occurred with some interbreeding with ancient hominins and the development of alcohol intolerance. More recently, an ability to retain lactase persistence into adulthood has evolved rapidly under the environmental stimulus of pastoralism with the ability to husband lactating ruminants. Increased amylase copy numbers seem to relate to the availability of starchy foods, whereas the capacity to desaturase and elongate monounsaturated fatty acids in different societies seems to be influenced by whether there is a lack of supply of readily available dietary sources of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids. The process of human evolution includes genetic drift and adaptation to local environments, in part through changes in mitochondrial and nuclear DNA. These genetic changes may underlie susceptibilities to some modern human pathologies including folate-responsive neural tube defects, diabetes, other age-related pathologies and mental health disorders.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)533-549
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Internal Medicine
Issue number5
Early online date17 Feb 2019
Publication statusPublished - May 2019


  • genetics
  • human evolution
  • nutrition


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