The Evolution of HBV, From Hunter-Gatherers to Today

The prehistoric origins of the hepatitis B virus are painted in new color by a new study analyzing the largest ever dataset of ancient viral genomes.

What to know:

  • The hepatitis B virus (HBV) has been infecting humans for millennia, according to DNA analyses, and a new study traces its evolution by examining virus genomes from Eurasians and Native Americans spanning a period from roughly 10,500 years ago to 400 years ago.

  • The research, published today in the journal Science, suggests that all HBV genotypes descend from a strain that was infecting the ancestors of the first inhabitants of the Americas and their Eurasian relatives at a time near when those populations diverged.

  • The study also revealed that HBV was infecting prehistoric hunter-gatherer populations in Europe before the introduction of agriculture there — contrary to the widely-held belief that many human pathogens emerged with the spread of agriculture.

  • However, those HBV strains were replaced by new ones around the time of the Neolithic Revolution and were likely spread by the first farmers in the region.

  • According to the researchers, another surprising finding was a decline in HBV diversity around the time of the collapse of the large Mediterranean societies during the Bronze Age (roughly 3300 BC to 1200 BC), suggesting major epidemiological changes happening at the time.

This is a summary of the article “Ten Millennia of Hepatitis B Virus Evolution” published by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History on October 7. The full article can be found on

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