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Publisher's Summary

A preeminent geneticist hunts the Neanderthal genome to answer the biggest question of them all: What does it mean to be human?

What can we learn from the genes of our closest evolutionary relatives? Neanderthal Man tells the story of geneticist Svante Pbo’s mission to answer that question, beginning with the study of DNA in Egyptian mummies in the early 1980s and culminating in his sequencing of the Neanderthal genome in 2009. From Pbo, we learn how Neanderthal genes offer a unique window into the lives of our hominin relatives and may hold the key to unlocking the mystery of why humans survived while Neanderthals went extinct. Drawing on genetic and fossil clues, Pbo explores what is known about the origin of modern humans and their relationship to the Neanderthals and describes the fierce debate surrounding the nature of the two species’ interactions.

A riveting story about a visionary researcher and the nature of scientific inquiry, Neanderthal Man offers rich insight into the fundamental question of who we are.

©2014 Svante Pääbo (P)2014 Audible Inc.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Mark
  • Raglan, New Zealand
  • 08-29-15

Not really about Neanderthal man

I’m very interested in Neanderthal Man. I’ve always been intrigued by this species of hominin that appeared very well adapted to survival. They were solid, well-built folks who looked like they would be much better at toughing out an ice-age, without thermal underwear, than we puny humans. And yet they didn’t survive. We cunningly killed them off, somehow. Either by defeating them in battle or outcompeting them for resources; I’m not exactly sure how we managed it, and that is all part of the fascination.

But this book isn’t about that story. This book is in fact the autobiography of a Swedish scientist who painstakingly uncovered the Neanderthal genome by analysing samples from ancient Neanderthal bones – an incredibly difficult task. It’s a proper autobiography, with extra-marital affairs and sex on the beach, but its main focus is the epic scientific endeavour to find the genome, spread over many years and including countless tribulations and setbacks.

If I’d read the by-line of the book (‘in search of lost genomes’), then I’d probably have realised that it was not going to be about Neanderthals, how they lived, what they got up to, why they succumbed to extinction, but I didn’t. As it was, the story of the quest for the genome was still fascinating and well worth a listen.

36 of 36 people found this review helpful

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Excellent science tale

In this book the Swedish professor, Svante Päbo, who is currently running a lab at the Max Planck institute in Leipzig, tells his tale about how he ended up sequencing the Neanderthal genome. It is a well balanced tale which contains just the right mixture of personal details (including that he is bisexual and that he had a long affair with a woman married to a colleague), and science.

To my relief Päbo skips over his early childhood and jumps straight to the time when he studied medicine in Uppsala. Having worked with DNA sequencing Päbo wondered whether DNA could be extracted from old samples. First he tried a cow liver that he had stored in the lab for some time. When he realised that this was no problem obtained tissue from an egyptian mummy (which he had been interested in for some time). Though it involved some difficulties (describes in much detail in the book), Päbo managed to extract DNA from the mummy as well. When he sent his manuscript to a professor at Berkeley, the professor, who did not realize that Päbo had not even earned his PhD, asked if he could not come and spend his sabbatical at Päbo’s laboratory. Since Päbo did not have a laboratory, he ended up going to Berkeley instead.

What impressed me most about Päbo, is how he has managed to pursue one important goal (sequence the Neanderthal genome), for more than two decades. He has approached this goal in a methodical, stepwise manner, so that in retrospect, everything makes sense. Päbo also makes an effort to describe the often advanced methods used to attain his goal. For me (I have a PhD in neuroscience but only superficial knowledge about DNA), the level was just right, however, I think that even readers who have very little prior knowledge can learn a lot.

In parallel with this scientific tale, Päbo describes the Neanderthals and the world they lived in before they went extinct 30.000 years ago. Indeed one of this book's thrills is learning what the discoveries in the laboratory says about the life of our ancestors. Fire example, it was long thought (and still believed by many), that Neanderthals were an inferior race who went entirely extinct. However Päbo's discoveries indicate that Neanderthals were dominant to us and that because of interbreeding between our race and Neanderthals, modern humans actually have some Neanderthal DNA in them (some more than others).This interplay between scientific theory and its implications, methodological developments and what it tells us about our ancestors also makes this one of the best books I have read when it comes to illustrating the scientific process. Despite his success, Päbo at least appears to maintain an all important skeptical attitude towards his own work and he is careful not to make categorical claims when they are not warranted.

All in all the Neanderthal man is an impressive scientific story told by an impressive scientist. I would not be surprised if, in a few years, Päbo receives a well earned Nobel prize.

62 of 65 people found this review helpful

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Not what I thought

Would you recommend this book to a friend? Why or why not?

It would depend on who that friend was!

Were the concepts of this book easy to follow, or were they too technical?

Very very technical but still I caught a lot of it because he describes things very well. I have a mere bachelors degree so this was... a lot for me. I by no means caught it all but did learn a lot.

Any additional comments?

I really thought this would be more about our ancient ancestors and Neanderthals and give a lot of details about the past. Instead it is very autobiographical and primarily about the author's (admittedly) interesting career and life. As a result I have learned A TON about the science behind the dating of ancient artifacts and fossils. If you are not in the science field it could also be an eye-opening view into the nature of research... rustling up funding and the race to publish... the competition etc.
It's not what I thought it would be but it has definitely been interesting and I have learned new things. Boy do I wish I were smarter though...

42 of 44 people found this review helpful

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Fascinating, well-balanced read

What made the experience of listening to Neanderthal Man the most enjoyable?

I absolutely loved this book. For a subject with great potential for being a very dry read - it is a play-by-play recount of a couple of decades work on sequencing archaic DNA, after all - I was glad to find it a very engaging, well paced, and extremely well-written read.

I have a science background and am well-read in this specific topic, but the author wrote the details of genetic research in a manner that lay persons too could readily follow, whilst not dumbing it down. The story of the unceasing struggles over the years to first find archaic DNA, and to then coax it to reveal its secrets using what were for many years extremely labour-intensive techniques, is an inspiring theme in itself for anyone working on an extended and challenging project. The staggered evolution of lab technology since the project's beginnings, and the impacts both positive and negative that these had on the research progress was a tale worth telling in its own right. Not much is visible in the public arena of the hard work and innumerable setbacks that scientific researchers go through behind the scenes, and it is easy I think for the public to imagine that 'they' just put a few pieces of bone into a machine, press a button, and suddenly a holographic image pops up of the decedent in question, glaring out at them with heavy Neanderthal frown and clutching his lower paleolithic spiked club. This book shares the true nature of genetic archaeology, politics, scandals and all.

Speaking of which, I also enjoyed the human aspects of the research project team. Hearing stories of the interpersonal dynamics at play both within the research team and between them and external bodies nicely rounded out the scientific aspects of the story. Some reviewers on Amazon did feel the more personal stories of the author's love life a bit unnecessary, but whilst surprised at the direction the book took I didn't mind those either; it was nice to hear more of the human being writing the story beyond his research prowess, especially since the book already had me hooked from the start.

Overall this is a great book that I'll certainly listen to again. Having read (i.e. listened to!) many other books on evolution, especially of humans, it was invaluable to hear the stories behind the genome sequencing I had heard so much of and have seen referenced so often in other books. The new information regarding Neanderthal lineage and that of related groups, such as the Denisovans, shed so much invaluable light on their history (and some big surprises too) that a book specifically discussing this research in depth is well worth the read for anyone interested in human origins.

31 of 33 people found this review helpful

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  • Jean
  • Santa Cruz, CA, United States
  • 04-11-16

A Genetic jigsaw Puzzle

I found this most interesting and fun book to read. It is written in the first person just as if Svanto Paabo was sitting beside the reader telling the story of how he mapped the genome. Some technical information is provided and explained but mostly he tells about himself and his colleagues and their work. They way the book is written keeps the reader engaged and enthralled with the story. The book reads like a memoir rather than a scientific book.

The story starts in 1981, when Paabo, a Swedish graduate student, became obsessed with ancient DNA. He extracted DNA from Egyptian mummies; at that time no one had any idea the desiccated flesh of mummies contained any genetic material. In this book Paabo reveals the three decades of research that led to the mapping of the Neanderthal genome. Toward the end of the book Paabo reveals in passing that he is the secret extramarital son of Sune Bergstrom, a well known biochemist and co-winner of the Nobel Prize.

The book is well written and is easy to read; all scientific technical information is simply explained for the lay person. I learned a lot about the Neanderthal and about DNA from the book as well as the workings of higher education politics. Dennis Holland does a good job narrating the book.

7 of 7 people found this review helpful

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Interesting but very little about Neanderthals.

I did enjoy the science behind what lead up to the discoveries and the importance of being careful about contamining the DNA. When he threw in information about his sex life of being bisexual and stealing a co-workers wife, I lost interest. No one cares about your sex life. I wish the author stayed focused on the science and didn't give such a personal history of himself. That was really my only complaint, it didn't belong and added nothing to the discoveries he made. I did finish it and thought it was very interesting if a little egotistical at time. I still recommend it but listen to at an increased speed.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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Excellent, human-scale, book about science

What made the experience of listening to Neanderthal Man the most enjoyable?

The author (& protagonist/narrator) made the hard science in the book very easy to listen to. He interweaves the drama & the process of science with the personal ambitions of scientists, annals of his own life & career. It all makes the science portion exciting, without the reader having to know all of the details he goes over. The narration is excellent. And I found it hard to put down my iPod throughout (thereby accumulating lots of podcasts, science-centric & otherwise, that I could enjoy when the book was done).

15 of 17 people found this review helpful

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  • Kathy
  • Davis, CA, United States
  • 07-28-17

For Scientifically Inclined Fans of Non-Fiction

This fascinating true story tells of the DNA sequencing of the Neanderthal's genome. It is very detailed in the scientific realm but is written in a very clear and concise manner that makes listening pleasant and easy. I do have a science background with a degree in biochemistry and yet, lots of the explanations went in one ear and out another. Perhaps it was because I don't sit quietly when I listen, perhaps I am more visually oriented, perhaps there was no time to digest the information, perhaps it is way too long since I graduated! It really didn't bother me, and I enjoyed the listen anyway. I felt there was a great deal of information I did take away. I was reminded of the difficulties of doing scientific research--the funding struggles, the cut-throat competitiveness, the need to publish or perish, the egos, the tediousness of long-term research projects. It was all very enlightening. Most importantly, it confirmed to me that I was very lucky that I could not get a job in the research field upon graduation, as I would not have been happy in this arena, for sure.

A reader (me, for instance) might want more information on the anthropological aspects of Neanderthals, that is, their behaviors and more speculation on their disappearance. That is just not the purpose of this book, and it should be understood from the description. It is autobiographical in nature and focuses almost entirely on the research leading to the momentous accomplishments of Svante Paabo, that is, the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome.

I was, however, rather surprised at the very personal information that the author added to his book, namely his bisexuality and his relationship and ultimate marriage to a fellow researcher's wife. I am not sure why it was included but perhaps and most likely he comes from a more open culture.

The narration was excellent.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • John
  • Chamblee, GA, United States
  • 04-26-15

Interesting Stuff

This book is just fascinating. It is a compelling biography of an important scientist's quest to unlock the mystery of pre-history. Although the subject matter is highly complex, the author provides a reasonably accessible explanation of what he and his team are doing and what it means. In other words, you don't need an advanced degree in biology to enjoy the book.

The findings about our nearest relative are interesting and surprising. You have probably read about the results in the popular press, but I won't spoil the results.

It's also interesting to hear about the behind the scenes struggles as Svante and his team try to gain access to bones, and worry about other, less careful, scientists beating them to the punch.

Overall, the book was highly enjoyable, and I will be looking for additional compelling developments as the science advances.

9 of 10 people found this review helpful

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Much More Than I Expected

The title is slightly misleading. If you're someone deeply interested in Neanderthals and want to know everything about them and their history, that isn't the focus of this book. The book is much broader than that; it's about early humans of many species, and their travels, and that's exactly what interests me.

I was extremely happy with the main theme, which is how we determine such knowledge, and the challenges of proving and disproving our findings. I was well educated about DNA itself, but weak on the challenges of isolating and verifying results. In a few spots I got a little lost -- sequencing, long vs. short, etc. -- so I had to settle for the big picture. On the whole, however, Pääbo made an incredibly complex subject very understandable.

It reads like a novel much of the time, full of tension, suspense, failure, and triumph; and, throughout, the amazing ghosts of our ancestors. Pääbo writes in a relaxed and intimate way that made me feel we were walking hand in hand through the sites of his challenges.

The reader does an excellent job. In addition to clarity, pacing, and correct emphases, I kept feeling it was the author himself talking to me.

I debated whether to give a 4 or a 5, and finally opted for 5 because of the extreme talent used to make such a difficult subject so readable.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Elanor
  • 12-19-14

the best book ever!

What made the experience of listening to Neanderthal Man the most enjoyable?

Pääbo is not only brilliant but funny and I have listened to the book twice in the last day and looked through the paper book again. This book taught me a lot and even made me laugh a fair amount.

What does Dennis Holland bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you had only read the book?

It was great to get to listen to the book also since I could write a report on the subject at the same time as refresh my knowledge on the subject. Really nice to be able to do other things, like eat Nutella and think, while learning more also.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

twice. I didn't even sleep.

Any additional comments?

You just can't help getting obsessed with this subject. You just want to learn more and more.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Louise
  • 01-08-17

Human endevour behind Neathandal science.

Great insight into the trials and tribulations of peacing togetger the genetic story we share with our big brained, successful and ultimately enigmatic ancestors .

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  • G
  • 12-17-16

Fascinating - very in depth account

This book is fascinating but was probably not the best book for me in this area. It is a very detailed and well written account of the science behind the understanding of the Neanderthal genetic code and also an interesting autobiography of the scientist who lead the work. My level of understanding in this area is A level Biology followed by a zoology degree, admittedly 30 years ago, and I was often at full stretch to try to keep up with the arguments presented here. For me an abridged version would have worked better but if you want to get the complete picture and have the scientific knowledge to understand it you'll find all you could wish for here. The narrator is well matched to this type of material.

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  • GreenBell
  • 02-13-16

Fantastic story of a real scientist

A great read, no popular science book I've read has had such close attention paid to practicalities

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Michele Cunningham
  • 05-30-16

Fascinating book

Being a retired molecular biologist I found this a very interesting book. However I would have preferred the narration by the author