Perhaps no other disease has had such a dramatic influence on art, music and literature. Now science has shown that tuberculosis is as old as humanity itself.

Studies have revealed that the tuberculosis bacterium originated many tens of thousands of years ago when the first anatomically modern humans had yet to start their global migration from their African homeland.

The horror of “consumption”, as TB was once called, suffuses modern history – no doubt a reflection the number of novelists and artists it struck down. But the origins of this debilitating lung infection go back much further in time, long before Neolithic people about 12,000 years ago first started to domesticate livestock and build the urban centres where TB could spread easily from one person to another.

A detailed genetic analysis of more than 250 contemporary strains of TB bacteria from around the world has revealed that the infectious agent originated with the emergence of Homo sapiens in Africa more than 70,000 years ago.