Neanderthal Man

In Search of Lost Genomes by Svante Pääbo

The hottest thing in human evolution studies right now is DNA extracted from fossils of Neandertals and other long-gone populations. Pääbo, the dean of ancient-gene research, explains in his book how it all began when he bought a piece of calf liver at a supermarket in 1981.

In those days, DNA had been successfully pulled only from living animals. Pääbo modified the methods to extract genetic material from the dead calf’s liver, which had been heated to make it hard and dry like an Egyptian mummy. Pääbo then retrieved human DNA from an actual Egyptian mummy. A high-profile journal published his findings.

After that auspicious start, the Swedish scientist recounts how he came to run the world’s first laboratory studying ancient DNA. A recurring theme in the book concerns Pääbo’s obsessive push to eliminate sources of contamination in ancient DNA, especially modern human DNA transmitted by scientists who handle (and in one case, licked) fossils.

Pääbo describes professional tensions that flared in 2006 when his team chose a technique to sequence the Neandertal genome. Researchers who had developed an early method of extracting DNA from fossils lost out to developers of a simpler but more powerful procedure. Feelings were hurt. The leader of the snubbed research group became a competitor of Pääbo’s for Neandertal bones and for bones from Neandertal relatives called Denisovans.

Aside from such behind-the-scenes dramas, Pääbo provides a fascinating look at how his personal life intersected with the founding of a scientific field that has revolutionized evolution. 

Basic Books, $27.99

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Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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