Eske Willerslev, TEDxKEA

Original article co-written with Anton Tarabykin for TEDxKEA, available here

Forming the future by studying the past

Constant discoveries that prompt revisions of what we previously knew to be true are at the very core of our evolution. The merits of science in forming the present and ultimately the future cannot be overstated. Just as important, however, is understanding our past. Studying how problems developed, how our ancestors approached them, and ultimately where they have failed or succeeded, is crucial to understanding who we are today, and what we will be in the future. Lessons harnessed from the past can and should influence social, political and environmental decisions that we make today, and help us build a better future.

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Eske Willerslev is an evolutionary biologist known worldwide for his pioneering work with ancient DNA. He is renowned for several groundbreaking expeditions in Siberia along with his twin brother, anthropologist Rane, during which they gathered ethnographic material and Megafauna remains (Megafauna is a zoological term for large animals).

Eske’s discoveries have in fact re-interpreted much of mankind’s history. His studies on Aboriginal migration patterns proved that the indigenous people of Australia migrated to the continent at least 24,000 years earlier than it had previously been argued. Similarly, Eske’s studies have shown human presence in North America more than 14,000 years ago, which is a thousand years earlier than previous assumptions. Based on samples from the arm bone of a 24,000-year-old Siberian boy, Eske’s team discovered a genetic link between Eurasians and Native Americans, which at the time was a major surprise.

Among other Indiana Jones-esque feats, Eske has become an adopted member of the Crow Tribe of Indians in Montana, United States. Of all the lessons learned from such epic voyages, Eske believes that his research on ancient human migration patterns ultimately shows how the spread of people advances innovation and, ultimately, our evolution: “If you look at the past, you will see that the societies that survived were the ones that changed, not the ones that remained conservative and closed in around themselves. The ones that do well are those that constantly learn from others and take in new impressions, while the ones that stay in isolation, like the Paleo-Eskimos, die out in the end”, he points out.

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