Basic £18.99. Order for £16.99 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes by Svante Pääbobook - book review: 'Inquiry into ancient DNA reveals the secrets of our genes'
Wednesday 02 April 2014
In Leipzig an international effort led by Svante Pääbo's team at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology has produced a genome sequence for a Neanderthal woman who lived in Siberia 50 millennia ago. It is of as high a quality as genome records obtained from people alive today. We can see the ancient DNA in as much detail as the modern – and we can now see DNA from the extinct form in most living humans' genomes.
Up until a few years ago, many would not have imagined this would be possible. Pääbo and his colleagues certainly had their crises of doubt when they were trying to compile a first-draft Neanderthal genome. A billion ancient DNA fragments, typically a few dozen units long, had to be compared with the three billion units of the modern human genome. Cleanliness was critical too. It's easy to extract DNA from ancient bones. The trouble is that nearly all of it comes from bacteria and the people who have handled them since their discovery.
Much of Pääbo's book is devoted to the details of the difficulties, and how they were overcome by an awesome combination of technology, ingenuity and persistence. It's a story of how modern high-concept science is done, shot through with the crackle of problem-solving and the hum of project tension, with occasional riffs of annoyance about major scientific journals and people who want dinosaur DNA.
Pääbo evinces little interest in Neanderthals themselves. For him their value lies in what they can tell us about our own distinguishing characteristics. He thinks of our principal ancestors as "the replacement crowd", a surging, driven population of movers and shakers who pioneered their way out of Africa, innovated technologically and left dramatic proof of their imagination on cave walls: in short, the forebears of people like him and his colleagues.
And yet his dazzling work has upended his own expectations, just as it defied the expectations of those who supposed it could never be done. He had imagined the great replacement as total, modern-form humans taking over the world and Neanderthals going extinct, but it turns out that people whose roots lie outside Africa typically carry a per cent or two of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes. His group also identified a new form of ancient human from a finger-bone in a Siberian cave. Its genes are present in modern-day Papuans, among others: how they got there we don't know. At every turn, ancient DNA brings us to the edge of wild surmise.
A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend
A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Three of Pope Francis' relatives die in Argentina car crash, including two young great-nephews
- 2 Michael Brown shooting: Amnesty International sends team within US for first time as National Guard deployed
- 3 Reading Festival 2014: Tesco branch replaces salad with Jager and potatoes for vodka as campsite opens tomorrow
- 4 Here’s the damning letter Robin Williams wrote to his Mrs Doubtfire co-star's principal after they expelled her
- 5 Ferguson protests: 90-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein ‘arrested’ by police during St Louis demonstrations
JK Rowling drops new Harry Potter story on Pottermore: Introducing Celestina Warbuck, the 'Singing Sorceress'
Best movies on Netflix UK and US: 32 films that will end your endless scrolling
Reading Festival 2014: Tesco branch replaces salad with Jager and potatoes for vodka as campsite opens tomorrow
Kate Bush: Previously unseen photographs reveal new side to comeback star
Celebrity Big Brother 2014 contestants: Meet Kellie Maloney, formerly known as Frank Maloney
Isis threat: Cameron wants an alliance with Iran
Crisis? What crisis? A visiting US doctor gives the NHS a rave review
Ukip MEP calls for reintroduction of death penalty on fiftieth anniversary of last deaths
Russell Brand calls for Israel boycott: Comedian urges big businesses that 'facilitate the oppression of people in Gaza' to pull funding
Michael Brown shooting: Chaos erupts on the streets of Ferguson after autopsy shows teenager was shot six times – twice in the head
World peace? These are the only 11 countries in the world that are actually free from conflict