Ancient DNA


Eighteenth Annual Darwin College Lecture Series 2003

Lecture 3   :   31 January 2003

Professor Svante Pääbo

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig


I will describe our efforts to elucidate the evolutionary history of extinct species and past populations using 'ancient' DNA; that is, DNA from archaeological and palaeontological remains. Analysis of ancient DNA is made extremely difficult by the fact that the DNA molecules are degraded to small pieces and chemically modified as a result of post-mortem enzymatic, hydrolytic, and oxidative processes. In addition, the inescapable contamination of old specimens with miniscule amounts of contemporary DNA means that stringent criteria must be met in order to avoid erroneous results. Over the last 15 years, we have made progress in overcoming some of these problems and have been able to retrieve DNA sequences from Pleistocene organisms such as cave bears, mammoths and Neanderthals.

I will discuss what Neanderthal DNA sequences suggest concerning the histories and interactions of Neanderthals and modern humans. I will also discuss how a direct window into the behavior of extinct mammals and ancient humans is given by the inference of their diets using analysis of DNA from coprolites. Furthermore, DNA from ancient corn cobs allows us to follow how key genes responsible for various properties of maize were selected by early farmers in the Americas.


Professor Svante Pääbo was the founding Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig which opened in 1997 and is an expert in evolutionary genetics. By comparative DNA sequencing in humans, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, he aims to gain a better understanding of the origin, time and early migrations of humans and their closest relatives. He also uses methods for the retrieval of DNA sequences from archaeological and paleontological remains to elucidate the history of humans and Pleistocene mammals.

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