A sarcophagus, containing DNA of mummies

Old Mummies and DNA

Ancient Egypt always fascinated people. The mystery of the pyramids, their mummies, the tombs and the treasure closed inside is something that everybody knows. Indeed, we can enjoy the view of these treasures in our modern museum or even directly visit them. However, something else is now attracting the attention of researchers: DNA. The DNA of mummies has already been extracted in the past but contamination of modern DNA, and technical limitations made the studies quite difficult and unreliable. Nowadays thanks to the improvement of the techniques of DNA sequencing and developing new statistical tools it is possible to study DNA from old mummies revealing interesting news: ancient Egyptians are much more closely related to ancient Middle Easterner populations than African populations.

In a recent study, a team of German researchers extracted DNA from mummies from the area of Abuser-el Meleq belonging to the pre-Ptolemaic, Ptolemaic and Roman Period. The researchers could obtain DNA from the bones, soft tissue and teeth of more than 90 different mummies. The mummies were preserved in their original mummified state and they are from anthropological collections at the University of Tubingen and from the Felix von Luschan skull collection.

From each mummy the researches either extracted mitochondrial DNA, that is inherited from the mother, or nuclear DNA, that is inherited from both parents. They then compared this DNA with DNA from modern Egyptians and old DNA from other geographical areas.

They discovered that ancient Egyptians are closely related to Neolithic and Bronze age individuals from Levant, as well as to Neolithic Anatolian and European populations. In contrast they share little DNA similarities with modern Egyptians, who instead share DNA similarities with sub-Sahara Africans.

The authors interrogate themselves as to why and how this can be possible. They suggest that the most probable reason is due to the increase of commerce between the Egypt and sub-Saharan region and they also cannot exclude slave trade over the centuries. Either way, for sure around 700 years ago sub-Saharan DNA got into old Egypt.

However, the study is based on the mummies from the area of Abuser-el Meleq, and thus it could be not representative of all Egypt but only of a small fraction of the old Egyptians population.
Finally, new advances in DNA sequencing techniques opens new fields of research and it could help to dissect the mystery of ancient Egyptians, and why not also of other mysterious and old populations who still fascinate us.

Indeed, this is a notable example of how advanced technologies match with archaeology and how two different disciplines could work together to answer historical questions.

Ancient Egyptian mummy genomes suggest an increase of Sub-Saharan African ancestry in post-Roman periods. Verena J. Schuenemann, Alexander Peltzer, Beatrix Welte, W. Paul van Pelt, Martyna Molak, Chuan-Chao Wang, Anja Furtwängler, Christian Urban, Ella Reiter, Kay Nieselt, Barbara Teßmann, Michael Francken, Katerina Harvati, Wolfgang Haak, Stephan Schiffels & Johannes Krause Nature Communications 8, Article number: 15694 (2017)

Nicola Mattugini

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