Chapter 12: Professor Eske Willerslev


“Neither primary school or high school interested Eske Willerslev. And during his study time he wasn’t that attracted to research before beginning his thesis. Actually, he thought that the biology program in general was incredibly boring. He did his thesis at the Biological Institute, which, back then, was called the Department for Evolution Biology. He spent two years working on his thesis, and it was two years of hard work. But it was amazing to generate new and concrete knowledge and to uncover something that no one knew anything about. The whole process was the best thing he had ever experienced, including the frustrations. There were a lot of them, but it was just as good as when he was an adventurer and explored deserts. It was the same adventure. The expeditions were a part of the inspiration.”

»I went on the first expedition right before I started studying biology. During the study time, I took many long breaks to go on expeditions. Right when I finished studying, I thought that the expeditions hadn’t given me any professional experience, but today I can see that they gave me a lot. It was the reason that I – when I was writing my thesis – had an interest in the extinction of the ice age’s animals and in human migration. I experienced people who talked different languages and lived differently, and I asked myself, why and how they got there. And I wondered about the bones of extinct animals as I travelled around in the tundra.«

“Eske Willerslev says he thought only two subjects were interesting during his study of biology. One of them was the story of human evolution, and the other was evolution biology. In the human evolution story, he thought that the teacher’s inspiration and energy were amazing. There other was evolution biology, where for the first time he saw the big picture. He was then able to connect the other elements from his study of biology study into one piece. His thesis was about DNA on ice cores. He wanted to work with human migrations even then, but the leadership at the department said no. Bent Christensen, a professor nearing retirement, suggested that Willerslev could pull DNA out of ice cores. At that time, there weren’t any places in Denmark where you could do that kind of examination of humans. Willerslev thought that the ice cores might be a springboard to doing this, so he started there.”

You can read the whole portrait of Professor Eske Willerslev below (in Danish) by downloading the chapter below.

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