The last talk of the Falling Walls Conference 2014 is by Svante Pääbo, director of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig. He is a pioneer in recovering DNA fragments from relics that are often tens of thousands of years old.
In a remarkable feat of hygiene – ancient DNA is particularly prone to contamination from contemporary DNA – and persistence, Pääbo’s team pieced together an entire Neanderthal genome. Comparison with the DNA of present day humans yielded a surprise. Neanderthal DNA was found to make a one to two percent contribution to the DNA of all modern humans in the world except those in Africa. The likely reason was that modern humans on their way out of Africa bred with Neanderthals, probably in the middle-east, and carried their DNA to other parts of the world.
So It turns out that Neanderthals are not quite extinct – they live on within us. In the scraps of their DNA are echoes of how we came to be. And in comparing our genome with theirs we may find what is truly unique to modern day humans.
“We have always mixed,” say Svante Pääbo, referring to species of ancient humans in our evolutionary tree. Perhaps this is true in other ways on a much shorter time-scale. It’s twenty-five years today since the Berlin wall came down, and soon the balloons across Berlin marking where the wall once stood will be set adrift.