We tend to forget that modern humanity is largely sheltered from the last vestiges of wild untamed Earth and that our way of life bears little resemblance to how our ancestors lived during 90 percent of human history. We have lost nearly all trace of these former selves—and, worse, have marginalized the few remaining humans who retain their hunter-gatherer identity. In Tanzania, tribes of wandering foragers called the Hadza, who have lived for thousands of years in the East African Rift Valley ecosystem, tell us an immense and precious story about how humans, together with their microbial evolutionary partners, are adapted to live and thrive in a complex natural environment.

Ongoing research with the Hadza to characterize the hunter-gatherer-microbiome relationship has yielded not only insight into the co-adaptive capacity of this microbial ecosystem but also a profound appreciation for how versatile human life can be. The microbiome is central to our biology. It mediates the interaction and exchange of information across host-environment thresholds such as the mouth, skin and gut.

The strength and importance of this mediation are borne out in the Hadza gut microbiota. Their microbiome harbors incredibly high taxonomic diversity, indicating great ecosystem stability and flexibility. It is capable of withstanding the perpetual presence of parasites and pathogens and can respond to fluctuations in diet caused by an unpredictable and seasonally dependent food supply. Interestingly, bacterial taxonomic abundance is different in Hadza men and women. Because of the sexual division of labor in Hadza society, men and women tend to consume more of their respective foraged food resources. The women primarily collect and eat tubers and other plant foods. As a result, it appears that women carry more bacteria to help process the plant fiber in their diets. This difference has direct implications for how the gut microbiota may enable Hadza women to obtain adequate nutrition for fertility and reproductive success, despite a resource-limited environment. Through our work with the Hadza, we have been able to contribute to mounting evidence that human microbiota exerts a powerful influence on host health and survival, especially in natural fertility- and subsistence-based populations.

Comparative analysis of the gut microbiota of hunter-gatherers with that of Westernized industrial populations is also beginning to yield important insights. The microbial diversity in industrial groups is far below that of the Hadza, as well as those of other rural farming communities in Burkina Faso, Malawi and South Africa. Whereas a reduction in diversity may not seem ideal, it is the predictable response of an ecosystem facing a narrow range of selective pressures and is therefore no less adaptive. Some technological interventions, such as hypersanitation, consumption of refined foods and habitual use of antibiotics, have had a dramatic impact over time on the functional role of the microbiome in industrial populations. These aspects of a Westernized way of life have to a large extent displaced much of the original mutualistic functions of the microbiome in stabilizing our bodies against foreign microorganisms, allowing us to digest unprocessed foods and helping train our immune system to effectively fight disease.

We are just beginning to understand how the microbiome evolves over our lifetimes as a dynamic and mutualistic ecosystem that helps to facilitate human health. Thanks to the Hadza, we know that ancient human hunter-gatherers must have maintained a direct and persistent interface with the natural environment. As a result, the ancestral human microbiome was almost certainly a taxonomically diverse community, providing the functional flexibility that accompanied global colonization and is our adaptive legacy.