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DNA of the Past

Svante Pääbo began his career looking into ancient forensics and DNA a bit in secret, he tells the Guardian, as he didn't want to incur the displeasure of his advisor for conducting "frivolous" studies. To determine whether DNA could be extracted from very old samples, Pääbo bought a piece of liver and cooked it in a laboratory oven for a few days. And he was able to tease out DNA from the overcooked sample.

"When I started this field 25 years ago I thought we might be able to extract DNA from bones of people born a few thousand years ago and learn something about the ancient Egyptians or about the people who brought agriculture into Europe," Pääbo tells the Guardian. "It was beyond my wildest dreams to think we could resurrect genomes that are hundreds of thousands of years old. To have done that, well, it's really cool."

Indeed, Pääbo has moved on from mummies to Neandertals — finding evidence in their genomes that they mixed with the ancestors of non-African modern humans —and to Denisovans, an ancient hominin whose existence has been gleaned from genomic work alone.

"Pääbo has taken his brainchild, the study of ancient DNA, and shown first, that it is a useful adjunct in the study of human origins; but now, and more importantly, he has developed his techniques to a state where they have become the prime means for discovering and defining new human species," the Guardian adds.