Although there is general agreement that most forms of common disease develop as a consequence of a combination of factors, including genetic, environmental and behavioural contributors, the actual mechanistic basis of how these factors initiate or promote diabetes, cancer, neurodegenerative and cardiovascular diseases in some individuals but not in others with seemingly identical risk factor profiles, is not clearly understood. In this respect, consideration of the potential role for mitochondrial genetics, damage and function in influencing common disease susceptibility seems merited, given that the prehistoric challenges were the original factors that moulded cellular function, and these were based upon the mitochondrial-nuclear relationships that were established during evolutionary history. These interactions were probably refined during prehistoric environmental selection events that, at present, are largely absent. Contemporary risk factors such as diet, sedentary lifestyle and increased longevity, which influence our susceptibility to a variety of chronic diseases were not part of the dynamics that defined the processes of mitochondrial-nuclear interaction, and thus cell function. Consequently, the prehistoric challenges that contributed to cell functionality and evolution should be considered when interpreting and designing experimental data and strategies. Although several molecular epidemiological studies have generally supported this notion, studies that probe beyond these associations are required. Such investigation will mark the initial steps for mechanistically addressing the provocative concept that contemporary human disease susceptibility is the result of prehistoric selection events for mitochondrial-nuclear function, which increased the probability for survival and reproductive success during evolution. © 2013 Biochemical Society.