His work has revolutionized our understanding of the evolutionary history of modern humans; it has been significantly conducive to the realization that Neanderthals and other extinct human groups have contributed to the ancestry of present-day humans. “Neanderthals are the closest relatives of present-day people,” says Pääbo.“Comparisons of their genomes with those of humans today and with apes allows us to determine when genetic changes occurred in our ancestors.” In the future, this could help clarify why modern humans eventually developed complex culture and technology that allowed them to colonize almost the entire world.
Svante Pääbo, 63, studied Egyptology and Medicine at Uppsala University. As a postgraduate, writing his PhD in immunology, he also demonstrated that DNA can survive in ancient Egyptian mummies and thus gained professional fame as a pioneer in the new field of palaeogenetics. Palaeogeneticists study the genomes of ancient organisms and draw conclusions about the course of evolution.
After completing his doctorate, Pääbo worked in the team of evolutionary biologist Allan Wilson at the University of California in Berkeley. From 1990 he headed his own laboratory at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. In 1997 Pääbo became one of five directors at the newly founded Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, where he is still active.