Svante Pbo received the prize for his discoveries about the genomes of extinct hominins and humans.

The Neandertals, an extinct relative of humans, and a new hominin species were discovered by Pbo. After leaving Africa, he showed that humans interbred with the other species.

Where we came from, why some species went extinct and what makes us unique are some of the questions addressed by his work.


Katerina Harvati-Papatheodorou is a paleoanthropologist at the University of Tbingen. It has pushed boundary after boundary over the last couple of decades, achieving what was previously considered impossible: not only recovering ancient DNA from fossil bones, but also sequencing entire genomes of our extinct relatives.

The implication that evolution and ancient processes have on people today is stated by Harvati- Papatheodorou. She is happy that the field of human origins research is being honored.

According to research, Homo sapiens came to Africa 300,000 years ago. Neandertals lived in Europe and western Asia for about 400,000 years before they went extinct. Around 70,000 years ago, groups of humans left Africa and spread around the world. They co-existed with Neandertals for tens of thousands of years but little was known about their relationship.

Svante Pbo
The Nobel Assembly has awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Svante Pääbo for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution. Credit: Niklas Elmehed © Nobel Prize Outreach

Pbo was interested in early human history when he was a child. His research initially focused on getting ancient DNA from Neandertals. It's difficult to study ancient DNA because it degrades into tiny fragments and is easy to get contaminated from other sources.

The first thing Pbo focused on was the genetics of our cells. He was able to show that a 40,000-year-old piece of bone was not the same as modern humans and Chimpanzees.


He and his colleagues went on to sequence the full Neandertal genome and publish their results in 2010. The most recent common descendant of Homo sapiens and Neandertals lived about 800,000 years ago, and the two species interbred for thousands of years. A small percentage of modern humans of European or Asian descent are Neandertals.

Researchers had wondered if modern humans and Neandertals were related. Sharon Browning is a statistical geneticist at the University of Washington and she says that the first Neandertal genome was one of the most amazing moments in science. She says that studying the Neandertal and Denisovan genomes has led to huge insights into human history, domestication of animals, and evolution.

Denisovans was discovered by Pbo and his colleagues. The genome of a 40,000-year-old finger bone fragment from Siberia was found to be different from both Homo sapiens and Neandertals, according to the researchers. Up to 6 percent of the genetic makeup of people in Melanesia and parts of Southeast Asia is Denisovan.

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Paleogenomics is a new scientific discipline. The influence of ancient hominins on modern humans was revealed by the work.

The study of the first Neandertal genome was led by Richard E. Green. "Svante was the visionary, even from back in the eighties, the person who imagined that DNA may stick around for long, long periods of time," said Green, who is now a professor of biomolecular engineering at the University of California. It is rare for Pbo to be focused on the big picture. When members of the research team suggested a project, Savonte wondered how he was going to win the prize. He seemed to be on to something.


Information about what makes humans special is revealed. Neandertals were similar to humans in their use of tools. The ability to cross open water is one of the things that Homo sapiens has. Future research may uncover the mysteries of why our ancestors died out.

Green says that we are living with the legacy of Neanderthal genes. It allows us to see what makes us unique and how we have evolved over time.