Although scientists are hard at work studying the human gut microbiome, the complexity of the task is such that we still know very little about the trillions of microbes that live in and on us—and on whom we are intricately dependent. In a recent article published in the Journal of Human Evolution, researchers suggest that by studying the gut microbiome of our ancestors we can more completely understand the nature of our own health.

“We have little information about the ancestral state of our microbiome, and we therefore lack a foundation for characterizing this change,” they note. “The process of industrialization has dramatically reduced our direct interaction with natural environments and fundamentally altered our relationship with food and food production.”

The researchers question whether humans are in “mutualistic symbiosis” with our microbes, or whether the diseases of civilization—heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, asthma, allergies, and osteoporosis, for example—“are out of ecological balance and teetering on dysbiosis?” Indeed. They suggest studying mummified remains in a time-series approach linked to major moments in human development and innovation.

“Although reconstructing the ancestral microbiome by studying our ancestors directly is not without challenges, this approach provides a more direct picture of human-microbe coevolution.”

The more we know about our gut microbes and how they evolved, the better we will understand the current state of our health. I look forward to more studies that help us to understand how our gut microbes evolved—and how that shift has affected our health over time.