When you ask what the oldest disease is, you first need to define what you mean by disease. Then you have to qualify whether you are talking about disease in humans or any species. But even with all that out of the way, the answer is still a mystery. Gizmodo asked a variety of scientists who might be able to shed light on the subject, and they all said we don’t know for sure, but they have some ideas. Anthropologist Scott S. Legge of Macalester College studies humans, but doesn’t limit the question to them.
The oldest disease is probably a bacterial infection. I can imagine that, right along with the evolution of the first eukaryotic life, there was a prokaryote waiting to exploit it. This would have been the first evolutionary arms race, a fight that we’re still waging today. In addition, bacteria have ruled this planet since nearly the beginning. Every major adaptive radiation was likely accompanied by a parallel bacterial radiation. The Cambrian Explosion, cool, but think of all of the new species for bacteria to use. The Age of the Dinosaurs, ditto, but on land. The Planet of the Apes (the Miocene), probably saw the rise of many of the bacterial diseases that humans encounter today. And in the Anthropocene, humans are actually shaping the evolution of these bacteria through the use of antibiotics. Once again, bacteria dominate the planet.
Other scientists talked about evidence they’ve seen in fossil bones, about some of mankind’s oldest maladies, and different classifications of disease. There’s some interesting brain food about ancient diseases at Gizmodo.
(Image credit: Angelica Alzona/Gizmodo)