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Ancient DNA Adventurer

Svante Pääbo started out wanting to be an Egyptologist, he tells the New York Times' Claudia Dreifus in a Q&A. Though he turned away from that to pursue medical studies, he returned to studying Egyptian mummies when new DNA analysis tools emerged and could give a glimpse into the history of ancient humans.

"My thought was, 'If we could do this, we can answer many questions in history that we cannot otherwise answer,'" Pääbo says. Those questions, he adds, include determining whether the builders of the pyramids are the direct ancestors of modern Egyptian and examining whether mixing occurred when Neanderthal and modern humans met.

For the second question, Pääbo's work has shown that there was some mixing between Neanderthals and modern human. He estimates that European and Asians owe a sliver, some 1 percent or 2 percent, of their genome to Neanderthals. He's also found, based on DNA evidence, another group of ancient humans, dubbed the Denisovans for the cave where they were uncovered, also mixed with modern humans, leaving a genetic mark on Pacific populations, such as New Guinea.

Still, Dreifus notes, Pääbo ended up being an Indiana Jones-like adventurer.

"[I]t has so much exceeded my wildest dreams," he adds. "Rather than be the archaeologist, I ended up studying history in a new way."