The Neanderthals have won a prestigious award. Almost. Most people haven't heard of Svante Pbo, the Swedish geneticist whose work on ancient genomes and human evolution has landed him with the award for physiology or medicine, or the exact science behind paleogenomics and ancient DNA, but they have heard of Neanderthal.
You need vision, persistence and innovative methods to recover and sequence old, fragile genetic material, and that's what the award is for. It's also a recognition of the amazing revelations about our deep history that have come from palaeogenomics, which holds many undiscovered secrets about who we are today.
It feels like a recognition of the relevance of work on paleogenomics, human origin and archaeology for research communities. In the 21st century, research on our hominin relations, including Neanderthals, is a collaborative endeavor. Material analyses are done in many different ways. We use photogrammetry or lasers to record entire caves in 3D and trace how stone tools were moved across the land. The ability to retrievegenomics from old contexts was revolutionary. The dust of long vanished lives can be found in the caves, thanks to the ability to extract DNA from them. It has made it possible to assess the genetics of Neanderthals.
Thanks to Pbo, there is a huge community of palaeogenomics researchers who have trained with him. Many of the younger generations at the front end of the sampling, processing and analytical work are females. The Crick Institute and the University of Tbingen are both home to people who have worked on Neanderthals and the earliest Homo sapiens. They are using scientific clout to overturn outdated ideas that the hard sciences are male-dominated.
palaeogenomics has achieved a lot in a short period of time. Keeping up with new methods and jargon can be a challenge for those working in human origins. There have been ethical issues caused by the rapidity of advances. The direction of some research may force the field to lay out official standards and draw ethical red lines when reconstructing the brains of Neanderthals using genetic engineering.
While decoding ancient hominin genomes has allowed us to identify which genes are passed on from one generation to the next, the recognition of Pbo's work seems more about deeper themes. Since the discovery of their fossils more than 165 years ago, science has demoted us from special creations to something still marvellous but not entirely unique.
Both of us are embedded in a rich history of hominin diversity, and we still embody that history ourselves. A recent study found that less than 10% of our genome is unique to us.
Popular understanding has changed as well. Some still use the word "neanderthal" as a slur, but it now seems less offensive. The archaeological evidence for Neanderthals has changed the way we think about them. The knowledge that the very stuff of Neanderthals is still present today has forged a new emotional connection not just to them, but to all our other hominin relations. They and we have always been part of a planetary web of life.
Humility is the most profound legacy of Pbo. The same fate was shared by many of the earliest Homo sapiens populations entering the area, as well as the Neanderthals. Their genetics left no descendants among living humans. Being the last hominin standing is not necessarily something to be proud of, because our story is not one of predestined, exceptional success, but a blend of serendipity and coincidence.