Behind this Nobel prize is a very human story: there’s a bit of Neanderthal in all of us | Rebecca Wragg Sykes

Svante Pääbo deserves his accolade – palaeogenetics is an expanding field that tells us who we are

The Neanderthals have won a Nobel prize. Well, almost. Even if most people haven’t heard of Svante Pääbo, the Swedish geneticist whose work on ancient genomes and human evolution has landed him with 2022’s award for physiology or medicine, or the exact science behind palaeogenomics and ancient DNA, they certainly have heard of Neanderthals.

Honouring his contribution to building this incredibly vibrant field of palaeogenomics, the award is much deserved: you need vision, persistence and pioneering methods to recover and sequence immensely old, fragile genetic material. But it’s also a recognition of the astonishing revelations about our deep history that have come from palaeogenomics, which holds many untapped secrets about who we are today, including settling the long-debated question of whether Neanderthals and Homo sapiens ever encountered each other and, let’s say, “warmed up” those icy tundra nights (the answer is yes, many times).

For research communities, the prize also feels like a recognition of the relevance of work on palaeogenomics, human origin and archaeology more broadly – and its continuing importance. Research in the 21st century on our hominin relations, including Neanderthals, is an entirely interdisciplinary, collaborative endeavour. All kinds of material analyses take place, in all sorts of ways. We use photogrammetry or lasers to record entire caves in 3D; trace how stone tools were moved across the land; examine microlayers within ancient hearths; even pick out the starches preserved in grot between ancient teeth. And the advent of the ability to retrieve palaeogenomics from extraordinarily old contexts was nothing short of revolutionary. Today, DNA can be extracted not only from bones, but even from cave sediments: the dust of long vanished lives, waiting for millennia to be found. It has made it possible to assess individual Neanderthals’ genetic profiles, and has opened windows into previously invisible population histories and interactions.

More than a decade on from the first big findings, today there is a huge community of palaeogenomics researchers, in large part thanks to Pääbo, with many having trained with him. Among the younger generations at the front end of the sampling, processing and analytical work – who may be the first to make and recognise key new discoveries – many are women. They include Mateja Hajdinjak of the Crick Institute whose work has identified complex patterns of interbreeding among Neanderthals and the earliest Homo sapiens in Europe, and Samantha Brown from the University of Tübingen, whose meticulous work on unidentifiable bone scraps found the only known first-generation hybrid, a girl whose mother was Neanderthal and father Denisovan (closely related hominins from eastern Eurasia). Alongside wielding scientific clout, they are overturning outdated ideas that the “hard sciences” of statistics and white coats (or, in palaeogenomics, full-body protection) are male domains.

As an incredibly fast-moving field, palaeogenomics has achieved an enormous amount in a relatively short space of time. Innovative approaches are constantly being developed, and it must be admitted, even for those of us working in human origins, that keeping up with new methods and jargon can be challenging. The rapidity of advances, especially in competitive academic contexts, has also led to a number of ethical issues. While many are being tackled, the direction of some research may soon force the field to lay out official standards and draw ethical red lines when, for example, reconstructing the brains of Neanderthals using genetic engineering.

Ultimately, while decoding ancient hominin genomes has allowed us to identify which inherited genes we have today – hence the physiology or medicine element of the Nobel prize – the recognition of Pääbo’s work seems more about much deeper themes, resonating with something of a Neanderthal zeitgeist. Since the discovery of their fossils more than 165 years ago, science has been engaged in dethroning Homo sapiens, demoting us from special creations to something still marvellous but not entirely unique.

Palaeogenomics bolstered this vision of an Earth that hosted many sorts of human, at least five of which were still walking around just 40,000 years ago; translate that figure to a generational scale, and you’d see a chain of just 2,000 people linking hands. Ancient DNA has confirmed that we are both embedded within a rich history of hominin diversity, and that we still embody that history ourselves. Alongside the genetic material we acquired “sideways” through interbreeding with Neanderthals and other species, a recent study found that less than 10% of our genome is distinctive to Homo sapiens, evolved uniquely in us.

Most strikingly, popular understanding has shifted too. While some still drag out “Neanderthal” as a slur, it now seems somewhat abstracted from general public views. The archaeological evidence for Neanderthals’ complex, sophisticated minds, with genetic revelations of how close we really are to them, has transformed opinion on who they were, and what that means for us. The knowledge that the very stuff of Neanderthals is still present today – in each human heart, thumping with fear or joy – has forged a new emotional connection not just to them, but to all our other hominin relations. It also underlines the fact that they, and we, have always been part of a planetary web of life.

The most profound legacy of Pääbo’s establishment of palaeogenomics is, or should be, humility. Because it turns out that many of the earliest Homo sapiens populations entering Eurasia eventually shared the same fate as the Neanderthals they met and mingled with. Their lineages vanished, culturally but also genetically, leaving behind no descendants among living humans. Perhaps the greatest inheritance they left us is understanding that our story is not one of predestined, exceptional success, but a blend of serendipity and coincidence; and that being the last hominin standing is not necessarily something to be proud of.


Rebecca Wragg Sykes

The GuardianTramp

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