2023 Balzan Prize for Evolution of Humankind: Ancient DNA and Human Evolution
In devoting his scientific activities to the study of ancient DNA, Professor Willerslev has transformed our understanding of human evolution and history. His interests center on population mobility and on migrations, and he discovered that the genetic ancestry of present-day populations is the result of continuous movements and admixtures of human groups. We owe him a thorough understanding of the population histories of Australia, the Americas, Northern Europe, and large areas of Eurasia. He also led the way in using ancient DNA (extracted from teeth in mass graves) to identify pathogens and to expand our knowledge on epidemics that arose long ago by identifying where and in which circumstances ancient diseases appeared and the social and ecological circumstances they prevailed in.
Professor Willerslev’s revelation that modern and ancient DNA from plants and animals can be retrieved directly from environmental samples without analysing human fossil remains has been of great relevance for future studies. This pioneering work now allows us to monitor biodiversity across time and space, and more specifically, the fauna and flora in and around grottoes where hominins dwelt at certain times in their migrations, as well the spread of human pathogens.
By opening the scientific field of ancient environmental DNA – the recovery of DNA from terrestrial, lake, and ocean sediments in the complete absence of living organisms or fossil remains – he has pushed research in a new direction, which aims at finding out how living beings can evolve in order to cope with climate change and other present-day challenges.
Another original aspect of his research relates to the evolution of morphologically modern humans, and it is for these studies that he has independently developed his own research laboratories in Copenhagen and in Cambridge. Eske Willerslev has a stellar list of publications, mostly in highly renowned journals; he also plays an active role in education and capacity building in his country and internationally.
In conclusion, Professor Willerslev’s work is a superb testimony to the relevance of basic science for our present and future understanding of the human condition in a continuously changing world.