2nd Kyoto University-Inamori Foundation Joint Kyoto Prize Symposium
July 11-12, 2015
Theme “Technology / Genetic Science / Arts” - Tracing the Path of Evolution, in Holistic Contemplation of Present and Future Civilization - (Finished)

Eske Willerslev
Biological Sciences

Eske Willerslev

Professor, Director, University of Copenhagen
Professor, University of Cambridge
・Population Genetics
・Environmental DNA

Title of Presentation

“How we settled the world and developed cultural and biological diversity”

One of the most fundamental problems in the history of mankind is to understand the processes that created the genetic and cultural diversity among humans today. Despite more than a century of research in archaeology and anthropology, major questions remain unanswered or heavily debated. The reason is our inability to link human populations and their cultures across time. Attempts to close this gap were made through genetic studies. However, studies of living peoples infer the past from present diversity and distributions, both of which have been shaped by a history of colonisation, admixture and, more recently, globalisation. Ancient DNA studies provide direct information about past human diversity. Until recently, however, the field suffered from problems of contamination and scope – restricted to mitochondrial DNA, a poor marker for testing complex demographic scenarios. This changed in 2010, when my research group published the first ancient human genome. The results dismissed the commonly held belief at the time that it is not possible to obtain reliable nuclear DNA sequences from modern human remains due to contamination. We also showed the power of ancient genomics by revealing a hitherto unknown migration from Siberia into the Americas, independent of those that gave rise to today’s indigenous peoples in the New World – information not retrievable from modern genetic data. Since then, we have used ancient genomics to settle some of the most important controversies regarding the origins and dispersals of our species, and the cultural changes that followed. For example, we have shown that the ancestors of Aboriginal Australians were the first known human population to settle the World beyond Africa, 30-40 thousand years before the ancestors of Europeans and Asians settled in Eurasia. Since then, we have also shown that the distribution of ancestral Europeans and Asians was very different in the past, and that the genetic geography of humans today is very shallow, in most cases less than 4000 years old. One of the main outcomes of these studies is the realisation of the previously unknown amazing complexity of human evolutionary history – for example, Native Americans, thought to descend from a group of East Asians who crossed the Bering Strait 13-10 thousand years ago, trace ca. 1/3 of their genome to a population that also gave rise to present-day Europeans, but not to East Asians. Another is that the relationship between cultural and genetic change reflects multidimensional processes that create a web of outcomes at different geographic scales – a migration may disperse genes and ideas, but the ideas may travel further, creating a much wider pattern of cultural change than reflected in the genetic make-up of people; equally, important shifts in cultural parameters can occur in the absence of demographic change. Thus, ancient genomics allows testing the nature of cultural change in the past, one of the most longstanding problems in Archaeology. We have also used ancient DNA to explore the extent to which early modern man affected the environment. We have shown that, although early man impacted his surroundings through hunting, the mass extinctions of big mammals at the end of the Ice Age – a topic of extensive debate for more than a century – was mainly driven by climate and vegetation changes rather than human overkill, thereby challenging the idea of an early rise of the Anthropocene.

Presentation Movie


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A brief Biography

Eske Willerslev is an evolutionary geneticist. He is currently a Lundbeck Foundation Professor at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and the Prince Philip Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology elect at the University of Cambridge, UK. He is Director of the Centre of Excellence in GeoGenetics, Copenhagen. Willerslev spent his youth among indigenous peoples and fur trappers in Siberia, before obtaining his DSc at the University of Copenhagen in 2004. He has worked as visiting researcher at the MD Anderson Cancer Research Centre, University of Texas, US and as an independent Wellcome Trust Fellow at the University of Oxford, UK. At the age of 33, Willerslev became Full Professor at the University of Copenhagen – the youngest in Denmark at the time.

Details of selected Awards and Honors

1. Adopted member of the Native American Crow (Apsaalooke) tribe in the US (unsolicited).

2. Foreign associate member, National Academy of Sciences USA (unsolicited) (2014)

3. Honorary Doctor, University of Oslo (2014) (unsolicited)

4. UC Berkeley Miller Visiting Professorship (2013)

5. Lundbeck Foundation Professor Award (2013)

6. The Rosenkjær Award (unsolicited) (2012)

7. The Danish Independent Research Councils Major EliteForsk (Elite Research) Prize (unsolicited) (2011)

8. Antiquity Prize for the best paper in the Journal Antiquity in 2009 (Hebsgaard et al. ’The Farm Beneath the Sand’ – an archaeological case study on ancient ‘dirt’ DNA’) (unsolicited) (2010)

9. Elected member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters (2008)

10. Visiting Professorship, Dept. of Zoology, Oxford University, UK (2005) (unsolicited)

A list of selected Publications

1. Rasmussen. M, Anzick SL, Waters MR, Skoglund P, DeGiorgio M, Stafford Jr. TW, Rasmussen S, Moltke I, Albrechtsen A, Doyle SM, Poznik GD, Gudmundsdottir V, Yadav R, Malaspinas A-S, White SS, Allentoft ME, Cornejo OE, Tambets K, Eriksson A, Heintzman PD, Karmin M, Korneliussen TS, Meltzer DJ, Pierre TL, Stenderup J, Saag L, Warmuth V, Lopes MC, Malhi RS, Brunak S, Sicheritz-Ponten T, Barnes I, Collins M, Orlando L, Balloux F, Manica A, Gupta R, Metspalu M, Bustamante CD, Jakobsson M, Nielsen R, and Willerslev E (2014) The genome of a late Pleistocene human from a Clovis burial site in western Montana. Nature 506, 225-229.

2. Seguin-Orlando A, Korneliussen TS, Sikora M, Malaspinas AS, Manica A, Moltke I, Albrechtsen A, Ko A, Margaryan A, Moiseyev V, Goebel T, Westaway M, Lambert D, Khartanovich V, Wall JD, Nigst PR, Foley RA, Lahr MM, Nielsen R, Orlando L, and Willerslev E (2014) Genomic structure in Europeans dating back at least 36,200 years. Science 346, 1113-1118.

3. Raghavan M, DeGiorgio M, Albrechtsen A, Moltke I, Skoglund P, Korneliussen TS, Grønnow B, Appelt M, Gulløv HC, Friesen TM, Fitzhugh W, Malmström H, Rasmussen S, Olsen J, Melchior L, Fuller BT, Fahrni SM, Stafford Jr. T, Grimes V, Renouf MAP, Cybulski J, Lynnerup N, Lahr MM, Britton K, Knecht R, Arneborg J, Metspalu M, Cornejo OE, Malaspinas A-S, Wang Y, Rasmussen M, Raghavan V, Hansen TVO, Khusnutdinova E, Pierre T, Dneprovsky K, Andreasen C, Lange H, Hayes MG, Coltrain J, Spitsyn VA, Götherström A, Orlando L, Kivisild T, Villems R, Crawford MH, Nielsen FC, Dissing J, Heinemeier J, Meldgaard M, Bustamante C, O’Rourke DH, Jakobsson M, Gilbert MTP, Nielsen R, and Willerslev E (2014) The Genetic Prehistory of the New World Arctic. Science 345, 6200-6204.

4. Willerslev E, Davison J, Moora M, Zobel M, Coissac E, Edwards ME, Lorenzen ED, Vestergård M, Gussarova G, Haile H, Craine J, Bergmann G, Gielly L, Boessenkool S, Epp LS, Pearman PB, Cheddadi R, Murray D, Bråthen KA Yoccoz N, Binney H, Cruaud C, Wincker P, Goslar T, Alsos IG, Bellemain E, Brysting AK, Elven R, Sønstebø JH, Murton J, Sher A, Rasmussen M, Rønn R, Mourier T, Cooper A, Austin J, Möller P, Froese D, Zazula G, Pompanon F, Rioux D, Niderkorn V, Tikhonov A, Savvinov G, Roberts RG, MacPhee RDE, Gilbert MTP, Kjær K, Orlando L, Brochmann C, Taberlet P. (2014) Fifty thousand years of arctic vegetation and megafaunal diet. Nature 506, 47-51.

5. Raghavan M, Skoglund P, Graf K, Metspalu M, Albrechtsen A, Moltke I, Rasmussen S, Stafford TW, Orlando O, Metspalu E, Karmin M, Tambets K, Rootsi S, Mägi R, Campos PF, Balanovska E, Balanovsky O, Khusnutdinova E, Litvinov S, Osipova LP, Fedorova SA, Voevoda MI, DeGiorgio M, Sicheritz-Ponten T, Brunak S, Demeshchenko S, Kivisild T, Villems R,Nielsen R, Jakobsson M, and Willerslev E (2014) Upper Palaeolithic Siberian genome reveals dual ancestry of Native Americans. Nature 505, 87-91.

6. Orlando L, Ginolhac A, Zhang G, Froese D, Albrechtsen A, Stiller M, Schubert M, Cappellini E, Petersen B, Moltke I, Johnson PLF, Fumagalli M, Vilstrup JT, Raghavan M, Korneliussen T, Malaspinas A-S, Vogt S, Szklarczyk D, Kelstrup CD, Vinther J, Dolocan A, Stenderup J, Missael A, Velazquez A, Cahill J, Rasmussen M, Wang X, Min J, Zazula G, Seguin-Orlando A, Mortensen C, Magnussen K, Thompson JF, Weinstock J, Gregersen K, Røed KH, Eisenmann V, Rubin C-J, Miller DC, Antczak D, Bertelsen MF, Brunak S, Khaled AL-R, Ryder O, Andersson L, Mundy J, Krogh A, Gilbert MTP, Kjær K, Sicheritz-Ponten T, Jensen LJ, Olsen JV, Hofreiter M, Nielsen R, Shapiro B, Jun W, and Willerslev E. (2013) Recalibrating Equus evolution using the genome sequence of an early Middle Pleistocene horse. Nature 499, 74-77.

7. Jenkins DJ, Davis LG, Stafford Jr. T, Campos PF, Hockett B, Jones GT, Cummings LS, Yost C, Connolly TJ, Yohe II RM, Gibbons SC, Raghavan M, Rasmussen M, Paijmans JLA, Hofreiter M, Kemp BM, Barta JL, Monroe C, Gilbert MTP, and Willerslev E. (2012) Clovis Age Western Stemmed Projectile Points and Human Coprolites at the Paisley Caves. Science 337, 223-228.

8. Rasmussen M, Guo X, Wang Y, Lohmueller KE, Rasmussen S, Albrechtsen A, Skotte L, Lindgreen S, Metspalu M, Jombart T, Kivisild T, Zhai W, Eriksson A, Manica A, Orlando L, De La Vega F, Tridico S, Metspalu E, Nielsen K, Ávila-Arcos MC, Moreno-Mayar JV, Muller C, Dortch J, Gilbert MTP, Lund O, Wesolowska A, Karmin M, Weiner LA, Wang B, Li J, Tai S, Xiao F, Hanihara T, van Driem G, Jha AR, Ricaut F-X, de Knijff P, Migliano AB, Gallego-Romero I, Kristiansen K, Lambert DM, Brunak S, Forster P, Brinkmann B, Nehlich O, Bunce M, Richards M, Gupta R, Bustamante C, Krogh A, Foley RA, Lahr MM, Balloux F, Sicheritz-Pontén T, Villems R, Nielsen R, Jun W, Willerslev E (2011). An Aboriginal Australian genome reveals separate human dispersals into Asia. Science 334,94-98.

9. Lorenzen ED, Nogués-Bravo D, Orlando L, Weinstock J, Binladen J, Marske KA, Ugan A, Borregaard MK, Gilbert MT, Nielsen R, Ho SY, Goebel T, Graf KE, Byers D, Stenderup JT, Rasmussen M, Campos PF, Leonard JA, Koepfli KP, Froese D, Zazula G, Stafford TW Jr, Aaris-Sørensen K, Batra P, Haywood AM, Singarayer JS, Valdes PJ, Boeskorov G, Burns JA, Davydov SP, Haile J, Jenkins DL, Kosintsev P, Kuznetsova T, Lai X, Martin LD, McDonald HG, Mol D, Meldgaard M, Munch K, Stephan E, Sablin M, Sommer RS, Sipko T, Scott E, Suchard MA, Tikhonov A, Willerslev R, Wayne RK, Cooper A, Hofreiter M, Sher A, Shapiro B, Rahbek C, Willerslev E. (2011) Species-specific responses of Late Quaternary megafauna to climate and humans. Nature 479,359-64.

10. Waters MR, Stafford TW Jr, McDonald HG, Gustafson C, Rasmussen M, Cappellini E, Olsen JV, Szklarczyk D, Jensen LJ, Gilbert MTP, and Willerslev E. (2011) Pre-Clovis Mastodon Hunting 13,800 Years Ago at the Manis Site, Washington. Science 334, 351-353.

11. Rasmussen M, Li Y, Lindgreen S, JS Pedersen, Albrechtsen A, Moltke I, Metspalu M, Metspalu E, Kivisild T, Gupta R, Bertalan M, Nielsen K, Gilbert MTP, Wang Y, Raghavan M, Campos PF, Kamp HM, Wilson AS, Gledhill A, Tridico S, Bunce M, Lorenzen ED, Binladen J, Guo X, Zhao J, Zhang X, Zhang H, Li Z, Chen M, Orlando L, Kristiansen K, Bak M, Tommerup N, Bendixen C, Pierre T, Grønnow B, Meldgaard M, Andreasen C, Fedorova SA, Osipova LP, Higham T, Ramsey CB, Hansen vO, Nielsen FC, Crawford MH, Brunak S, Sicheritz-Pontén T, Villems R, Nielsen R, Krogh A, Wang J, and Willerslev E. (2010) Ancient genome sequence of an extinct palaeo-eskimo. Nature 463, 757–762.

12. Gilbert MT, Kivisild T, Grønnow B, Andersen PK, Metspalu E, Reidla M, Tamm E, Axelsson E, Götherström A, Campos PF, Rasmussen M, Metspalu M, Higham TF, Schwenninger JL, Nathan R, De Hoog CJ, Koch A, Møller LN, Andreasen C, Meldgaard M, Villems R, Bendixen C, Willerslev E. (2008) Paleo-Eskimo mtDNA Genome Reveals Matrilineal Discontinuity in Greenland. Science 320, 1787-1789.

13. Gilbert MTP, Jenkins DL, Götherstrom A, Naveran N, Sanchez JJ, Hofreiter M, Thomsen PF, Binladen J, Higham TFG, Yohe II RM, Parr R, Cummings LS, Willerslev E. (2008) DNA from Pre-Clovis Human Coprolites in Oregon, North America. Science 320, 786-789.

14. Willerslev E, Cappellini E, Boomsma W, Nielsen R, Hebsgaard MB, Brand TB, Hofreiter M, Bunce M, Poinar HN, Dahl-Jensen D, Johnsen S, Steffensen JP, Bennike O, Funder S, Schwenninger J-L, Nathan R, Armitage S, Barker J, Sharp M, Penkman KEH, Haile J, Taberlet P, MTP Gilbert, Casoli A, Campani E, Collins MJ. (2007) Ancient Biomolecules from Deep Ice Cores Reveal a Forested Southern Greenland. Science 317, 111-114.

15. Willerslev E, Hansen AJ, Brand T, Binladen J, Gilbert TMP, Shapiro BA, Wiuf C, Gilichinsky DA, Cooper A. (2003) Diverse plant and animal DNA from Holocene and Pleistocene sedimentary records. Science 300, 791-795.