Studies of the defence capacity of ancient hominins against toxic substances may contribute importantly to the reconstruction of their niche, including their diets and use of fire. Fire usage implies frequent exposure to hazardous compounds from smoke and heated food, known to affect general health and fertility, probably resulting in genetic selection for improved detoxification. To investigate whether such genetic selection occurred, we investigated the alleles in Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans at gene polymorphisms well-known to be relevant from modern human epidemiological studies of habitual tobacco smoke exposure and mechanistic evidence. We compared these with the alleles in chimpanzees and gorillas. Neanderthal and Denisovan hominins predominantly possess gene variants conferring increased resistance to these toxic compounds. Surprisingly, we observed the same in chimpanzees and gorillas, implying that less efficient variants are derived and mainly evolved in modern humans. Less efficient variants are observable from the first early Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers onwards. While not clarifying the deep history of fire use, our results highlight the long-term stability of the genes under consideration despite major changes in the hominin dietary niche. Specifically for detoxification gene variants characterised as deleterious by epidemiological studies, our results confirm the predominantly recent appearance reported for deleterious human gene variants, suggesting substantial impact of recent human population history, including pre-Holocene expansions.