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Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes First Edition Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 192 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0465020836
ISBN-10: 0465020836
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

As Pääbo tells it, sequencing the genome of Neanderthal man seems to have been about equally fascinating and frustrating. Fortunately, fascination predominated, and ultimate success was reported in 2010 and closely followed by the sequencing of another progenitor of modern humans. The frustration that dogged the project arose from the difficulty of finding Neanderthal fossils with enough DNA left in them to reconstruct the genome, and the constant need to expel contamination by modern human DNA, which, since it highly resembles Neanderthal DNA, routinely corrupts sequencing the latter. The tale Pääbo tells is largely one of technological improvement enabling the elimination of contamination and speeding up the sequencing process. Secondarily, it’s about creating scientific foundations and multinational scientific cooperation to pursue the promises of research into ancient DNA, including that of nonhuman species as well as hominins. Although he never mentions it, Pääbo is the acknowledged founder of ancient DNA research. Instead, he sparingly recounts his personal odyssey from homosexuality to marriage and fatherhood, without relating it to his work, which may perplex some readers. --Ray Olson


“Pääbo provides a riveting, personal account of the development of paleogenetics and the technical revolution that made the field possible.... Whether unacquainted with Pääbo’s work or regular followers of his publications, readers will find that Neanderthal Man provides a nonpareil account of the development of the field of ancient DNA.”

“Pääbo’s book is well worth adding to your Summer reading list.”
John Farrell, Forbes.com

“In Neanderthal Man Pääbo offers a fascinating account of the three decades of research that led from a secret hobby to a scientific milestone.... Neanderthal Man is a revealing history of a new scientific field.”
Carl Zimmer, New York Times Book Review

“Pääbo has provided us with a fabulous account of three decade of research into ancient DNA, culminating in 2010 with the publication of the Neanderthal genome.... Pääbo’s book has to be compared to The Double Helix (1968), James Watson’s brilliant but controversial account of how the structure of DNA was discovered. When taken together they provide an insight into how bio-molecular science has both changed and remained much the same during the last half-century. Both are strong personal accounts of scientific discovery, exposing how science is driven as much by passion, ambition, and competition as by rational thought and the sharing of knowledge. In both books the reader is gripped by life stories of far greater interest than those in may novels before being plunged into passages of near-unintelligible science (despite much simplification) that are nevertheless strangely enthralling.”
Steven Mithen, New York Review of Books

“This is the fascinating account of Svante Pääbo’s efforts to sequence Neanderthal nuclear DNA.... [H]is personal story, from graduate to world-renowned scientist, make this a very enjoyable book.... The study of Neanderthals has kept palaeontologists occupied for more than a century, but Pääbo convinces us that decoding their DNA will provide insights into how different we are from them and what makes us so unique.”
BBC Focus

“[An] engaging book.... Neanderthal Man is devoted–and devoted is definitely the word–to the years-long ancient DNA project to sequence the Neanderthal genome. Pääbo and his far-flung team did that to an accuracy that exceeds most of the contemporary genomes being sequenced today.... Before I read Neanderthal Man, I thought I knew something about contamination of ancient DNA. In fact, though, I had no clue. No matter how well informed you are about genetics, Svante Pääbo will teach you things.”
Tabitha Powledge, PLOS Blogs / On Science Blogs

“I came for the cavemen, but I stayed for the geeky nail-biter of a story about doing historic science in a climate of fierce international competition and rapid technological innovation.... Truth be told, DNA sequencing is pretty wonky stuff, but perhaps it’s Pääbo’s own passionate investment in the undertaking that makes his story so exciting to read about; Neanderthal Man does for paleogenetics something like what Steven Spielberg did for the legislative process in Lincoln.... [T]his book is a vibrant testimonial to what might be the greatest creation of modern humans: the scientific method.”
Laura Miller, Salon

“Much of Pääbo’s book is devoted to the details of the difficulties [of extracting DNA from ancient bones], and how they were overcome by an awesome combination of technology, ingenuity and persistence. It’s a story of how modern high-concept science is done, shot through with the crackle of problem-solving and the hum of project tension, with occasional riffs of annoyance about major scientific journals and people who want dinosaur DNA.”
The Independent (UK)

“[A]n excellent glimpse into how modern science proceeds as a global, social activity.... Pääbo has to navigate through collaborators and competitors (including people who spend time in both categories), guardians of the bones he wants to grind into dust, touchy issues of nationalism, and more. In the process, he helps found a new research institute and builds a team dedicated to studying ancient DNA. If anyone doubts that science is a social activity, the doubt won’t survive reading this book.... Pääbo paints a picture of how a major scientific advance rose out of a mix of politics, persuasion, careful management, and struggles with technology and technique. For that alone, it’s valuable.”
Ars Technica

“If there is one name associated with ancient DNA, it is Svante Pääbo.... Pääbo pioneered and has largely led the field for the past three decades. His book, Neanderthal Man, is perfectly timed, beautifully written and required reading—it is a window onto the genesis of a whole new way of thinking.”

“If Pääbo weren’t such a good storyteller, the book might have bogged down with descriptions of things like the different techniques of polymerase chain reaction, and all it takes to build a clean lab. But he’s a clever enough writer to keep the reader’s attention with a fast-paced story and wonderful details.”
23andMe blog

“This is a fascinating story of how modern science and especially computer technology is opening vistas onto our prehistoric history.”
The Explorers Journal

“Pääbo provides a fascinating look at how his personal life intersected with the founding of a scientific field that has revolutionized evolution.”
Science News

“In Neanderthal Man, Svante Pääbo offers readers a front-row seat to the still-unfolding understanding of this enigmatic human ancestor by recounting his own years of work.... Pääbo quite candidly relays the doubts and challenges that accompanied more than a decade of discovery—a labor that elevated Neanderthals from troglodyte brutes inhabiting a dead-end branch of the human family tree to a complex species that interbred with other hominins, including Homo sapiens. Never one to shy away from provocative statements or even-more-provocative research, Pääbo gives what appears to be an honest and open account of his pioneering studies of Neanderthal genetics.”
The Scientist

“Evolutionary biologists are, general, pretty interesting people to talk to, but rarely would you describe their lives as thrilling. The notion of combining an autobiography with a popular science book may therefore not seem especially compelling. However, in this case both the author and the science are quite extraordinary, and inextricably linked.”
Evening Standard (UK)

“Pääbo’s tale describes a process approaching the Platonic Idea of contemporary science: a lot of very smart people collaboratively working their butts off, persisting through mistakes and failures and numbingly repetitive but essential tasks and political machinations and technological inadequacies because they believe the Truth is Out There. And finally finding it. Others have not yet weighed in, and this being top-level and therefore monumentally competitive science, contrarians may well emerge. But if the Neanderthal genome project was anything like what Pääbo describes, we are damn lucky.”
Tabitha Powledge, Genetic Literacy Project

“Pääbo passionately chronicles his personal story, from graduate school through the culmination of the Neanderthal project 30 years later, and the scientific implications of this exciting research.... In accessible prose, Pääbo presents the science so that laypersons will understand the nature and import of his work. But it’s his discussion of the scientific process that steals the show.... He discusses what it took to build a case tight enough to convince even the most skeptical of colleagues and he goes on to demonstrate that scientific knowledge is cumulative and ever-evolving.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

“[A] revealing glimpse into the inner workings of scientific research.... Since Neanderthals are our closest evolutionary relatives, the author’s work in decoding Neanderthal DNA gives scientists a way to understand how we differ genetically from them and offers the opportunity to learn what genetic changes have made humans unique on this planet.”
Kirkus Reviews

"The tale Pääbo tells is largely one of technological improvement enabling the elimination of contamination and speeding up the sequencing process. Secondarily, it’s about creating scientific foundations and multinational scientific cooperation to pursue the promises of research into ancient DNA, including that of nonhuman species as well as hominins.”

“It is a rare thing to read about an important development in science by its principal innovator, written in the spirit and style in which the research unfolded. Neanderthal Man is a dispatch from the front, and if you want to learn how real science is really done, I suggest you read it.”
Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor, Emeritus, Harvard University

“Svante Pääbo’s Neanderthal Man is the incredible personal story of one man’s quest for our human origins using the latest genome sequence tools. Pääbo takes us through his exciting journey to first extract DNA from ancient bones then sequence it to give us the first real glance at our human ancestors, and showing ultimately that early humans and Neanderthals interbred to produce modern humans. This is science at its best and reinforces that contained in each of our genomes is the history of humanity.”
J. Craig Venter, Chairman and President, J. Craig Venter Institute

“Svante Pääbo, a major architect in the study of paleo-DNA, has written a personal, insightful and sometimes very frank book about his relentless quest to understand the human family tree. The first scholar to extract genetic material from Neanderthals, Pääbo writes candidly about the seemingly insurmountable trials and tribulations he had to overcome to give us intriguing new insights into human origins.”
Donald Johanson, Founding Director of the Institute of Human Origins, Arizona State University, and author of Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind

“Problem by problem, solution by solution, Paäbo’s gripping account of the discovery of our relationship with Neanderthals brilliantly conveys the thrill and reality of today’s big science and the excitement of a major breakthrough.”
Richard Wrangham, Professor of Biological Anthropology, Harvard University, and author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

Neanderthal Man opens with this episode [when Pääbo and his team first sequenced Neanderthal DNA], and it’s a nice touch by Pääbo, bringing us straight to the moment when his long, painstaking effort to tease ancient DNA out of hominin fossils yielded its first dramatic results.”
David Quammen, Harper's

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; First Edition edition (February 11, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465020836
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465020836
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (192 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #317,012 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Sam Santhosh VINE VOICE on February 13, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
With the completion of the full human genome sequence in 2003 and the rapid fall in DNA sequencing costs over the subsequent 10 years, we have been awaiting major advancements in many fields such as Healthcare, Agriculture, Drug Discovery and so on. However, the progress has been slow and the deluge of genome sequence data has been a tough problem to handle.

But, Svante Paabo in this fascinating book on the 'Neanderthal Man' shows how the new technologies have enabled him to sequence the genomes of our extinct relatives - the Neanderthals and the Denisovans. The data proves how our ancestors moved out of Africa about 50,000 years back and interbred to a small extent (2 to 7% of our genes come from them) with the Neanderthals and Denisovans and maybe drove them to extinction. Many interesting facts come out of these studies such as, (a) that gene flow seems to have been from the Neanderthals to us (and not the other way), (b) the founding population of the Neanderthals also seems to have pretty small like in the case of the humans (c) we split from the Neanderthals about 500,000 years back (d) the Denisovans split about 1 million years back (e) the Denisovans seem to be closer to the Neanderthals than to humans, and much more...

The book is not only fun to read, but Paabo's detective mode of story telling will also keep the reader focused. By mixing his personal stories with scientific research, Paabo provides a refreshing frankness to the narrative. We get a direct view of the challenges in scientific research and how the role of institutional support and adequate funding can make research a success. Paabo's journey from Egyptian mummies to Mammoths, to Sloths and finally the Neanderthals and Denisovans is a great inspiration to all students of science.
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The Neanderthal Man, by Svante, is a compelling recount by a principal in the discovery of genes of the Neanderthals. It starts with the interest in recovering DNA from old sources, and in this case some liver bought at the local market and then desiccated in an oven at 50C. The tale spans over some twenty years, with diversions typical of science, and ultimately ends with the publishing of some of the most interesting results in understanding man and his evolution.

Svante is an exceptionally good writer and the tale flows quite smoothly. If one understands the science, then one can fill in the gaps and the tales is well presented. If one does not understand the science then one can still appreciate what is happening by taking the results presented at face value.

The tale works back and forth from the fundamental science to the interrelationships between various players in the overall search. Svante shows how he managed to deal with the anthropologists and others to get samples of Neanderthals from as far away as Siberia. It also demonstrates some of the more cooperative nature of science as new techniques is shared and how Svante is assisted by many others who are but in related fields.

The efforts span from California to Eastern Russia and it shows that in today's environment the ability to communicate changed what would have been multi-lifetime efforts into a fast paced move to provide the final answers.

This book is a stark contrast to Watson's Double Helix. The Helix is a strong interplay of personalities; it portrays competitiveness and at times pettiness that is common in certain scientific endeavors. Helix was a true race, a sprint to get DNA right, and a succinct set of observations which became the underpinnings of Svante's efforts.
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Some commenters here were disappointed that this book is not about Neanderthals but rather about the process of decoding the Neanderthal genome. Sorry about that - I suggest you read another book.

This book has a chapter on dinosaurs too. There are no dinosaurs in that chapter and apparently there are no dinosaurs in amber either. Pääbo explains why it's so hard to get nuclear or mitochondrial DNA from fossils 'only' tens of thousands of years old. We won't be making dinosaurs the way they did in Spielberg's movie. All that dinosaur DNA has long since degraded.

One of the single deepest insights this book presents is the problem of contamination. You find an ancient fossil that has human DNA in it, and you do a PCR on it, almost all of your results will be non-human. I think he found about 98% of all the DNA in one of his samples was from various forms of contamination. If a human bone is lying on the floor of a cave, every mouse, every centipede, every critter of any kind that crawls over it and every dust particle that falls on it also has DNA. So it's not surprising that laying on a dirty floor for 20,000 years contaminates your specimen.

This is really a book about the actual process of science. Pääbo is a big success for a variety of reasons. Some intellectual - he's real smart - but also social. He seems to be a good supervisor and a good person. Good people want to work with him or for him. He is very far from being a recluse locked up alone in his lab. He goes to meetings and conferences around the world where he picks up contacts that help him later on. He seems to mix well with people from all walks of life. He is very non-nerdy.
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