Svante Pääbo


Nobel Prize Conversations

“The first thing I did to see if it at all would have a chance was to buy a piece of liver in the food store close to the institute and just dry it in the laboratory”

In a podcast episode with medicine laureate Svante Pääbo, he tells us about the start of his scientific career. Pääbo speaks about his mum and how she encouraged him to pursue his childhood interest, archeology. What makes us uniquely human is also a topic that is up for discussion. The host of this podcast is’s Adam Smith, joined by Clare Brilliant. This podcast was released on 25 May, 2023.

Below you find a transcript of the podcast interview. The transcript was created using speech recognition software. While it has been reviewed by human transcribers, it may contain errors. 

Svante Pääbo with skull
Svante Pääbo with a skull in hand. © Frank Vinken für Max-Planck-Gesellschaft



Svante Pääbo clip: “Neanderthals were here say 2,000 generations ago. If they would have made it another 2,000 generations, how would we have dealt with them? Would they live in zoos? Or would they live in suburbia?”  

Adam Smith: When Svante Pääbo talks about how close we came to living in a state of coexistence with Neanderthals, it makes you realise that our vision of ourselves as top species and like the end of evolution perhaps, which is obviously wrong, is really something that is a very recent perspective. Pääbo’s work really helps us understand our place in nature and how we ought to consider it more carefully.  

In a way it’s funny to contrast the far-reaching implications of such thoughts with the down and dirty experiments that Svante Pääbo started with when he burnt livers and ground them up and saw whether he could extract just a little bit of DNA from them, as he began this process of working out how you could reconstruct the degraded DNA of samples that had lain around for thousands of years.  

That contrast is one of the fun things about, I think, this conversation, that as you listen to the specifics of the research, bear in mind the truly ground-breaking nature of the implications of his results. 


Clare Brilliant: This is Nobel Prize Conversations. Our guest is Svante Pääbo, recipient of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He was awarded the prize for his discoveries concerning human evolution. By managing to sequence the genomes of our extinct relatives, the Neanderthal and the Denisovan, he unearthed unknown links between us and them. 

Your host is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer at Nobel Prize Outreach. This podcast was produced in cooperation with Fundación Ramón Areces.  

Svante Pääbo is the founding director of the department of genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. He’s also an adjunct professor at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. In this conversation you’ll hear him talk about how his mother set him on his path by encouraging his interest in archaeology, and how he discovered an unknown human species in a tiny piece of bone. 

But first, let’s hear from the next generation. 

Smith: To bring us back to Nobel Week in December, let’s listen to your daughter Freya, being interviewed during the banquet. 

CLIP: An interview from the Nobel Banquet television broadcast

Victoria Dyring (reporter): It’s quite intense for your dad right now. What does he think of all this?  

Freya: He’s mostly like really happy. But sometimes he’s a tiny bit stressed because like he kind of doesn’t always have free time Like oh, so like he’s always on the computer or something like that but now that he like did his speech and everything, so now most of it is like gone so. Still really cool.  

Victoria Dyring: He can sort of relax.  

Freya: Yes 

Svante Pääbo: She will be so proud. 

Smith: Oh, good. She spoke very well. In terms of the load that has been imposed upon you by receiving the prize, how have you found that? 

Pääbo: It has eased up since the Nobel week, of course. What is slightly stressful is all the invitations and suggestions for activities I got. And have to say no to almost everything. You feel a little bad when you say no all the time. Also to invitations that a year ago, I would be happy to say yes to. I am becoming rather callous and hard with it. I say no to almost everything. 

Smith: That presumably is very important. That is the primary thing you need to learn as you become sought after, however it happens. And the Nobel just adds to that, I guess. 

Pääbo: Yes, so to still have the ambition to do some of my real work, still. 

Smith: Absolutely. Of course, your work involves very much future facing technologies and the state-of-the-art genetics and genomics. But it all comes out of an interest in the past, which is, I think, rooted in childhood. I wondered if you could talk just a little bit about that interest in archaeology and digging around in the far distant past that developed when you were young.  

Pääbo: I think it probably started as a sort of fascination with archaeology that many kids probably have. I was fortunate to live in Stockholm, where there are places where there’s lots of ancient remains and places where people lived during the Stone Age. With time I got a bit sophisticated and found out where there were Stone Age settlements. Then, for example, in falls, when there had been big storms and trees tip over, I would go around and look in the roots where lots of soil that had come up for old pot shards and things like that and collected things.  

Smith: What was the best thing you ever found?  

Pääbo: It is actually on an island outside Stockholm, there was a site where I found lots of pot shards and could puzzle them together, a rather big piece of pot that was around 3000 or 3200 years old. It was absolutely fascinating to me that you could see these things that someone had done so long ago. You could see sometimes fingerprints in the clay of the pot.  

Smith: It’s very tempting to think of that being the seed for piecing together other things such as genetic signatures and whole genomes in the future.  

Pääbo: Maybe. I still have that pot and it’s a piece of a pot. It’s amazing to me. Then it was really my mom who took me to Egypt when I was 13 or 14 or so, where it really opened my eyes to how much is preserved there. It wasn’t like you have to look for a pot shard with great effort. There were places where the whole soil more or less was composed of pot shards. That really then took off and it somehow didn’t leave me, that fascination.  

Smith: That must have been mind-blowing to encounter such a place so young. What was the most memorable moment on that trip?  

Pääbo: I think it was really in southern Egypt on this island Elephantine where there was this realisation that the whole earth was composed of at least 50% pot shards in layers, where the older things were lower down. That there were lots of just human remains too that were found every year in cemeteries, old cemeteries and things in Egypt.  

Clare Brilliant, voiceover: Svante Pääbo was born in 1955. He grew up in a suburb of Stockholm with his mother Karin Pääbo, an Estonian-born chemist who came to Sweden as a refugee during the second world war. His father was Swedish biochemist Sune Bergström, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine four decades before his son. But Svante was raised by his mother, who played a significant role in shaping his future career. 

Smith: It’s interesting to talk about the influence of parents, always interesting. In your case, of course, there’s been a lot of focus on the fact that your father was a Nobel Prize laureate, but you always talk more about your mother. What did your mother do for you that was special in nurturing your interests? 

Pääbo: First of all, I grew up as a single child of a single mum. Our father only visited us on Saturdays for a few hours. I think my mum was a very strong woman who took my interest seriously too. When I got interested in runic stones, we would on Saturdays and Sundays drive around and look at runic stones around Stockholm and I would measure them and copy the runes. She really took time to sort of nurture those interests. That was perhaps an advantage of being a single kid to a single parent that she did have that time. I notice myself now that already when you just have two kids, you can’t devote that much attention to just one of them. 

Smith: Absolutely. I’m one of a pair of parents, but of a single kid. I recognise very much, I was thinking how absolutely lovely for your mother to have you to sort of go around and be excited with. If my child says, let’s go do something together, it’s the nicest thing in life. She must have been absolutely thrilled to have you say, we need to go off and study runes today, mum. 

Pääbo: Yes. I do think that as a single child of a single parent, you have an even more symbiotic relationship than typical family. Where I can also see that one had almost other roles also for each other. I would discuss things with my mum about how to get a new laundry machine, which type should it be a more expensive or cheaper one? Things that we would never discuss, Linda and I, with our kids. They would not even notice there was a new laundry machine installed. That one sort of was taken seriously rather early as a child, because we had multiple roles for each other almost.  

Smith: Makes you grow up quickly as well, I can imagine. Or maybe not. Maybe you consider yourself still very much a child in your mind. 

Pääbo: I don’t know. Depends on what aspects of personality, probably.  

Smith: Yes, indeed. Your story is that egyptology took hold and you thought that’s where you might go into egyptology. Then you switched away and moved into biology and medicine. What went wrong, if you like, with the idea of being an archaeologist?  

Pääbo: I do think that I probably had a far too romantic idea what it would mean to be an archaeologist or Egyptologist. I had this kind of childish fascination with it, imagining more or less that it would be excavating and finding amazing things every year. At least as Egyptology was taught in Uppsala, where I studied, it was very linguistic. A large, large part of it was learning to read hieroglyphs and Coptic and things like that. I worked two summers also at the Egyptological Museum in Stockholm. The first summer was pretty fascinating, cataloguing things and stuff like that. Then I sort of came back a year later and it was sort of the same people doing exactly the same thing, going for lunch at the same place, gossiping about the same stuff. Somehow it seemed too slow moving for me. So, I sort of was a bit disenchanted or I sort of realised I didn’t see this as my future and had a crisis of a sort, didn’t know what to do. Then ended up saying, OK, I study medicine because at least you get a job after that. I think I had an eye towards doing research in medicine also already from the beginning, actually.  

Smith: Remarkably mature to see that kind of aspect of academia or rather departmental life, which I suppose plagues many places so young and to recognise it and think, I don’t want to be part of that. Interesting. It’s funny to put it in these terms, because, of course, the result of all of these decisions was that you ended up in a position to do amazing things. Then I suppose the same question about medicine that I asked about Egyptology, what was wrong with medicine that meant that you didn’t go in that direction?  

Pääbo: I think it was absolutely nothing wrong with medicine. I think I had imagined I would be fascinated by research. In fact, when I did the clinical courses in internal medicine and surgery and things like that, I discovered that I enjoyed seeing patients much more than I would have expected to. Then had another little crisis of sorts saying, shall I become a doctor or shall I do research? I said, OK, I take a break and do a PhD, I can always come back and finish my medical courses. That’s where we still are today. I haven’t quite come back yet.  

Smith: I’m sure they’d welcome you back with open arms. As a PhD student, then, obviously, something took hold and an idea took hold gradually. You never know where ideas come from, I suppose. But how did the idea take hold? 

Pääbo: I think in this case, it’s pretty obvious that what I learned as a PhD student was the techniques that at that time were rather novel of how you can extract DNA from an organism, modify it and stick it in bacteria and multiply the bacteria and then determine DNA sequences from lots of different organisms and compare the DNA sequences and make inference about the evolutionary history of how these organisms are related. I knew from my studies of Egyptology that there were thousands and thousands of mummies around, human mummies and animal mummies in Egyptological collections. It seemed a rather obvious idea to say, can we apply these techniques to old tissues and find DNA that survived in them? I think most people at the time thought that DNA was very, very sensitive, that it would be enzymes that very rapidly degraded after death and things like that. But I guess, fortunately, I was rather ignorant of all that and just started trying it. I was able to show that you could see in tissues from ancient Egyptian mummies that are then two or three thousand years old, you could sort of see histologically in the microscope cell nuclei and you could also stain them for DNA. So, it seemed to be some DNA preserved there. Then I tried to extract the DNA, tried to clone it in bacteria to study DNA sequences and got some DNA sequences out and among those were some that were clearly of human origin that I then thought came from the mummy and even published that. In hindsight, then over the next years, it became clear that they were very unlikely or not likely at all to actually come from the mummy because they were rather long. It became clear that DNA is very degraded to short little pieces. Then I started a long process of working out techniques to reliably retrieve DNA from old tissues.  

Discovery Discussion: 

Brilliant: Svante Pääbo’s first attempt at extracting DNA from mummies failed, even if he wasn’t aware of it at the time. Can you explain what happened, Adam?  

Smith: Probably the sample was simply contaminated. He was looking to amplify and then sequence DNA from the mummy, but as we know from all those TV series about forensics, the world is littered with DNA from all sorts of different sources and mummies, which have been kicking around for a long time, have been touched by many people. It could have been his own DNA on there as well, or the DNA of anything else that had touched the mummy over the years, and he probably just ended up mistakenly sequencing a bit of stray DNA from elsewhere. Part of his work as he went on was to find ways of making sure that the samples he was working with were super pure.  

Brilliant: How did he eventually manage to extract DNA from old tissue?  

Smith: He found brilliantly ways of reconstructing extremely degraded DNA. The tissue he’s working on has been around for thousands of years. It’s been dried and frozen and goodness knows what else, and the DNA has become very broken up. Through painstaking efforts over a long period of time, he developed ways of piecing that DNA back together again, and being able to eventually recover the entire genome of the organisms he was studying.  

Brilliant: What is a genome?  

Smith: A genome is simply the collected DNA of an organism. It’s all the DNA instructions within the organism that tell it what it is going to become.  

Brilliant: Svante Pääbo received his Nobel Prize for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution. What is a hominin?  

Smith: A hominin!  

Brilliant: How am I supposed to say it?  

Smith: Exactly, a hominin. Some kind of concatenation of m’s and n’s that makes it very hard to…  

Brilliant: A tongue twister.  

Smith: It’s a tongue twister. A hominin is the group of species that include us, homo sapiens, and all our close ancestral relatives. Hominins include species we already knew quite a lot about, like Neanderthals, species we knew nothing about, like the Denisovans, that Svante Pääbo’s researchers discovered. It’s interesting to listen to Svante Pääbo describe how he got from that position of failing to sequence DNA from mummies to being able to produce these entire genomes. Let’s listen to him talk about the start of that work. 

End of Discovery Discussion  

Pääbo: The first thing I did to see if it at all would have a chance was to buy a piece of liver in the food store close to the institute and just dry it in the laboratory to somehow imitate mummification in ancient Egypt.  From that artificially mummified piece of liver I could easily extract DNA. It was quite degraded, actually, but it was lots of DNA surviving there. That gave me some confidence in that it’s not that the DNA gets totally degraded within hours after death, that many of us thought would be the case. That was what led me on to then try it also on older tissues. Then as I was working with this, there was another group at Berkeley, Alan Wilson, who was a very famous evolutionary geneticist, that published some DNA sequences from a quagga, from the dried skin of a quagga, which is an extinct form of a zebra. Those tissues were about 100 years old, but that sort of encouraged me also very much.  

Smith: It’s interesting that you didn’t take what you were told as absolute written truth, you had to go out and find out for yourself. The liver experiment shows an inquisitiveness, which is special, I think.  

Pääbo: Yes, sometimes I say that sort of inherent part of doing research is actually to almost take a delight in showing that what people think is wrong, right? That the received wisdom is not how things are.  

Smith: Indeed. What did your PhD supervisor think of this direction of research?  

Pääbo: At the time when I started this, I had rather big respect of him, so I would not tell him about this. This was done secretly in the lab, just some of my friends among the students would know about it. Some other people found out about it because that liver started smelling pretty badly after a while. Then only when the results were there and I was writing a manuscript about it, then of course I went and talked to my supervisor about it. He was very supportive then, sort of encouraged me to go on.  

Smith: Nice. That’s exactly how it should be, isn’t it?  

Pääbo: It may be good not to tell your supervisor from the beginning, get discouraged.  

Smith: How do you promote that sort of environment in your own working, in your own lab amongst your own students?  

Pääbo: I hope I promote it by sort of showing that it’s not that I have much better insights than anyone else, right? I am as often wrong as other people in the group are wrong about what we think.  

Smith: It must be difficult to differentiate people trying out things that really do seem to you bonkers and just not worth pursuing. Those who are going down interesting lines, but nothing’s happening. How do you draw the line?  

Pääbo: Ideally you have a sort of open enough atmosphere so people are not afraid to bring up ideas that may be crazy. Then my role or the roles of other people in the group will be sort of more to discourage certain ideas that are really bonkers. Sort of say things that might be right, that one can give it a try, right? Sort of sieve out the sort of good ideas among many, many ideas. 


Smith: From those early beginnings, you remarkably managed eventually to produce the genome of the Neanderthal. There’s a lot we’ve skipped over there. Were you immensely surprised that you got to that end point?  

Pääbo: It was, of course, a gradual process over 25, 30 years, right? Small advances. I think when we first got the first little pieces of Neanderthal DNA that comes from this mitochondrial genome that exist in many copies, so it’s much easier to retrieve: I was sort of amazed that that worked. I think for a couple of years, one was thinking we would never be able to get to the whole nuclear genome to get to single copy genomes, part of the genome, which are much, much less prevalent. It’s, of course, a step-by-step thing where technology advances, you start thinking this might work, you try things. So, of course, by 2004 or 5, I was convinced that in principle, one should be able to do it if one had enough resources and had sort of technological advances that you could see on the horizon coming. Then I was very fortunate that we sort of did convince the people to then give us money to attempt to do that.  

Smith: It must, I suppose, have become quite a competitive field over the course of those years. Obviously, it’s not the same as the Human Genome Project. But towards the end, that became such a race and people had so much vested interest in getting there first. Was there a similar feeling in your project? 

Pääbo: There were aspects of it that was competitive. There was one other group that we initially worked together with that then had different ideas about how one would do this, that one would actually clone DNA in bacteria. Rather than doing it all in vitro. We didn’t believe in that. Then we sort of went different ways and it became a bit competitive. But I had never sort of felt that competition is a primary driving force of anything like that. It is, of course, an aspect of this working with ancient remains that an important part is getting access to the good specimens. That can get competitive sometimes. There are now fortunate developments in the field, for example. Where one has now realised that one can even use the sediments from archaeological excavations to retrieve DNA from the people who have lived at the cave site. So not working with bones anymore. Then, of course, the material is not limiting anymore. The sort of unlimited amounts of that material, which is also a relief, right? It’s sort of not that you have to compete for the one bone necessarily that is found at the place.  

Smith: I was thinking this because when you discovered the Denisovans from a tiny piece of finger bone from a cave, I was wondering how that piece of finger bone came to you, to your lab. You had the good sense to think that was worth investigating.  

Pääbo: Yes, we worked with the Russian groups that excavated that cave since quite some time. They gave it to us, but we initially thought, this is so small, it’s not very interesting. It lay around for at least half a year before we got around to analysing it, actually. That’s sort of one of the things that is still a big mystery in the field, why certain bones can be a very good preservation. That little bone, in terms of DNA, has very much endogenous DNA preserved. Other bones from the same layer, just a meter away at the site, are much less well preserved. They do contain DNA, but much, much less. That’s something we still don’t understand.  

Smith: How very interesting.

Pääbo: It probably has to do with how much water percolation of things there have been over tens of thousands of years or so.  

Smith: This point you make about being able to retrieve DNA samples from sediment, of course, this must be a huge crossover with forensic science now, just in the modern world in crime fighting. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it? That you can piece together things from what one would have thought was almost nothing.  

Pääbo: Yes. I mean, the conditions had to be right. For example, the soil can’t be acidic. They say limestone caves are ideal because it’s sort of basic conditions. When it works, it’s really amazing. You can sort of retrieve from different layers, see what humans have been there. It’s still, of course, true that if you want to determine a high-quality genome from a single individual, you will need a well preserved bone. To reconstruct the population history of a site, it’s sort of sediment DNA is amazing.  

Smith: There’s so many avenues to go down when thinking about what these genomes that you’ve revealed tell us. The phrase that I think is used in the press release for the Nobel Prize you received by the committee is, it helps us understand what makes us uniquely human. Does that chime with you? In what sense does it help us understand who we are to know what the genome of the Neanderthal or the Denisovan would be?  

Pääbo: Different levels to think about this, I think. Of course, what has happened is that thanks to having the genomes from our closest evolutionary relatives, we can estimate when we had a common ancestor with them in order of half a million years ago or so. We have also discovered the fact that many of us today, those of us who have their genetic roots in Europe or Asia or anywhere outside sub-Saharan Africa, have a component in our genome that comes from Neanderthals, and we live in Asia in addition from Denisovans. That those contributions from them have biological consequences today, the variants that have come from them and some of us carry. The same will surely be true in Africa also, I think, when one is able in the future to retrieve genomes from extinct forms of humans in Africa. There is another level of this where one can say what makes us uniquely modern human are then genetic changes that happened since we separated from Neanderthals half a million years ago and spread to everyone, so that everyone has those changes today or most of us. That’s an area that’s just beginning to be explored. You can sort of make a catalogue of such changes and it’s in the order of 34,000 changes or so and then try to start looking as we and some others do, on the biological consequences of that model of changes. I think the direction it is going is probably going to be a combination of those that may be important for some aspects of being a fully modern human and I hope one will understand more of that in the next few years. It may even be the case that none of such changes is in themselves sort of a key change that is absolutely necessary. It may probably be a combination of those things. But that’s really a challenge for the next five or 10 years to try to find out those things. 

Smith: Yes, I suppose so much of biology is about finding out what we have in common with the rest of the living world, all the other animals and plants. It’s a different way of looking at things to say, okay, how do these 30,000 changes make us different? Very interesting. 

Pääbo: It’s very challenging because by definition those things vary very little. There are very few people who don’t carry these changes. That’s how we define them. It’s quite challenging to find out what they really cause because we can’t easily compare people with and without those changes. We’ll have to use model organisms or engineer these changes into cells using this CRISPR-Cas 9 technology that was awarded another well-deserved prize a few years ago, etc.  

Smith: Is there yet an example though that you can call upon that says this? 

Pääbo: Yes, so we’ve begun to study in collaboration with the groups that study brain development in Dresden, some of these changes. It turns out that a combination of changes in two genes affect how accurate chromosomes are pulled apart in early brain development in stem cells that generate neurons. That if we engineer in the ancestral state, Neanderthal, ape-like state, there are more errors in how the chromosomes segregate. That’s very interesting. It probably results in that cells with these errors in segregation actually die. If that then has consequences for the adult brain is another question that one needs to explore. One other change in an enzyme, PKTL1, for example, in the ancestral state results in fewer neurons being born. But again, these are changes that we now can study because they happen very early in brain development that you can model in the laboratory in tissue culture. It’s unclear what consequences those will have in the adult individuals, but one is beginning to sort of find some of these things. There is one other change in an enzyme that takes care of oxidative radicals, a sort of damaging side product of metabolism in all cells in the body. There the modern human version seems to be better in terms that it more efficiently takes care of these oxidative radicals because particularly when we’re very few of them there. Actually some people carry the ancestral state today as a result of gene flow from Neanderthals, but less than one in 10,000 or so in Europe. Then we can see that that associates with an increased, slight increased risk of having diseases that have to do with inflammation that may be caused by this radical. So, arteriosclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, things. One is beginning to learn some things about these things.  

Smith: Fascinating. The coexistence with Neanderthals, people talk about the fact that, or you have spoken about the fact that we, that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals interbred. What form did you think, from your genetic evidence, did interbreeding between the two populations take?  

Pääbo: I think something that’s striking to me is that when we now start to look at the genomes of very early modern humans in Europe, where one has most data. From modern humans that lived at a time when they could have met, or their immediate ancestors could have met Neanderthals. Then very many of them, I think we have probably in the order of seven such individuals today, and at least five of them have close Neanderthal relatives in their family histories in the last 10 generations or so. If we look at these very early modern humans that come, they seem to have interbred very often with Neanderthals. Only later does it seem to come modern humans that sort of replace Neanderthals so that they disappear. I think that probably part of the story about why Neanderthals disappeared may have been that they’ve simply been absorbed into larger modern human populations that came. That modern humans were more numerous. How this happened is of course anybody’s guess. I sometimes joke and say it says much more about your views of humanity and how we are as human beings, how you speculate about this, than anything about what happened back then because we truly don’t know. We could speculate about anything, really. 

Smith: What’s your individual speculation?  

Pääbo: I try to stay away from speculations. But it is striking to me that it seems to have been very frequent. I wouldn’t think that it’s all something very bad and violent or something like that. A large part of why Neanderthals disappeared may simply have been that the populations fused.  

Smith: I’m afraid it is entirely in the realm of speculation, but it is interesting to speculate on how the two populations viewed each other. We can’t have any insight into that. But how different did they see each other as being? By extension, what does that tell us about how we view the rest of the world today? It’s not as if the concept of species was sort of uppermost in their minds, perhaps. But in terms of something like tolerance, it seems an interesting thing to ponder.  

Pääbo: Yes, you must regard it as rather similar if you frequently sort of have kids together, right? You can’t regard each other as totally alien. Sometimes I say it’s sort of interesting to speculate. Neanderthals were here, say, 2,000 generations ago. It’s not tremendously long ago. If they would have made it another 2,000 generations, how would we have dealt with them? Would they live in zoos? Or would they live in suburbia? Would we see even worse racism against them today? Because they were truly in some ways a bit different. Would it rather have blurred this very clear distinction we so easily make between humans and animals? If we would have other forms of humans that still had sort of using tools and having communication, but being quite different. We may not have had this quite limited view of what it is to be a human. Again, it’s only speculation, right?  

Smith: Only speculation, but valuable and fascinating speculation. I may be pushing it too far, because we can’t tell too much. But just the common view of Neanderthals as being a subspecies, not having produced art, for instance, and perhaps not being as brilliant as their cousins. Do you think that holds up?  

Pääbo: I think it’s a big debate among palaeontologists and archaeologists, where I think the sort of trend goes to recognising more and more abilities in the Neanderthals. It is still true that somehow it is modern humans in the end that become so numerous, spread over the whole world, and eventually develop technology and things that change so rapidly. In my view, there has to be some difference there. It may not necessarily be that you’re individually on average smarter as a modern human than a Neanderthal or something like that. Could also have something to do with sociality or so. Modern humans seem to form larger communities and larger populations. Maybe it’s something social that distinguishes us and maybe having larger societies make for more innovation and more rapid cultural change, for example. Maybe we will understand something of that one day.  

Smith: It’s arguable that the progress of the world isn’t entirely linear, that the most brilliant and accomplished always choose the direction that the countries are going to go in, that societies are going to go in. So, we can’t be sure that that’s what was happening back then, I suppose.  

Pääbo: Yes. 


Reception for Svante Pääbo
The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig holds a reception for Svante Pääbo congratulating him on his Nobel Prize. Copright: Sylvio Tüpke, MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology

Smith: You’ve been running an institute since 1997. To build something that truly reflects your vision of how research should be done. Must not be easy.  

Pääbo: Or you rather say it’s a great privilege to be able to implement some of your ideas. I mean, I think it was almost a historically unique situation in Eastern Germany when after reunification, there was the ambition and the resources to build up a research infrastructure to a similar level as in Western Germany in terms of population, so to say. It was really a chance to start several new institutes. This was one of them where we then sort of asked the question, how would we study human history and human evolution if we started from scratch, without looking on any traditional ways of doing it? It was, yes, a unique chance in life to do that.  

Smith: To be given a tabula rasa like that. Extraordinary. Yes. Do you think you’ve been successful?  

Pääbo: I hope so. I have the feeling that this institute has been slightly copied since then at other places in the world. The idea was to bring together different disciplines, no matter if they are traditionally seen as humanities or sciences, as long as they are empirical, as long as they build on collecting data, testing the data statistically. If you do that, you can talk to each other, no matter if you’re a linguist or archaeologist or geneticist. To some extent, I do think it has been successful.  

Smith: That’s very important. Much happens on the interface between disciplines. It’s so important to be able to have common language, common conversation. If people wanted to get a picture of your institute, would you say that that little video that’s gone viral of you being thrown into the pond in the middle of the institute, having been awarded the prize, captures the spirit? Students throwing their leader into the pond? 

Pääbo: I hope so.  

CLIP: The sounds of Svante Pääbo being thrown into a pond

Smith: Good. It’s very kind of you to have taken time to speak to me.  

Pääbo: Okay, thanks. 


Clare Brilliant, voiceover: You just heard Nobel Prize Conversations. If you’d like to learn more about Svante Pääbo, you can go to, where you’ll find a wealth of information about the prizes and the people behind the discoveries. 

Nobel Prize Conversations is a podcast series with Adam Smith, a co-production of Filt and Nobel Prize Outreach. The producer for this episode was Karin Svensson. The editorial team also includes Andrew Hart, Olivia Lundqvist, and me, Clare Brilliant. Freya was interviewed by Victoria Dyring. Music by Epidemic Sound. 

At the Max Planck Institute, Nobel Prize laureates are plentiful. Listen to our conversations with Benjamin List, Klaus Hasselmann, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Hartmut Michel. You can find previous seasons and conversations on Acast, or wherever you listen to podcasts.  

Thanks for listening.

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