Science

Ancient mummy DNA reveals surprises about genetic origins of Egyptians

Ancient mummy DNA reveals surp...
Scientists have recently, for the first time, extracted full nuclear genome data from ancient Egyptian mummies
Scientists have recently, for the first time, extracted full nuclear genome data from ancient Egyptian mummies
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One of the samples the researchers obtained DNA information from
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One of the samples the researchers obtained DNA information from
Scientists have recently, for the first time, extracted full nuclear genome data from ancient Egyptian mummies
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Scientists have recently, for the first time, extracted full nuclear genome data from ancient Egyptian mummies
The area in Middle Egypt the researchers found their samples
3/3
The area in Middle Egypt the researchers found their samples

For the first time, scientists have extracted full nuclear genome data from ancient Egyptian mummies. The results offer exciting insights into how different ancient civilizations intermingled and also establishes a breakthrough precedent in our ability to study ancient DNA.

The international team of scientists, led by researchers from the University of Tuebingen and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, sampled 151 mummified remains from a site called Abusir el-Meleq in Middle Egypt along the Nile River. The samples dated from 1400 BCE to 400 CE and were subjected to a new high-throughput DNA sequencing technique that allowed the team to successfully recover full genome-wide datasets from three individuals and mitochondria genomes from 90 individuals.

"We wanted to test if the conquest of Alexander the Great and other foreign powers has left a genetic imprint on the ancient Egyptian population," explains one of the lead authors of the study, Verena Schuenemann.

The area in Middle Egypt the researchers found their samples
The area in Middle Egypt the researchers found their samples

In 332 BCE, for example, Alexander the Great and his army tore through Egypt. Interestingly the team found no genetic trace of not only Alexander the Great's heritage, but of any foreign power that came through Egypt in the 1,300-year timespan studied.

"The genetics of the Abusir el-Meleq community did not undergo any major shifts during the 1,300 year timespan we studied," says Wolfgang Haak, group leader at the Max Planck Institute, "suggesting that the population remained genetically relatively unaffected by foreign conquest and rule."

They found that ancient Egyptians were closely related to Anatolian and Neolithic European populations, as well showing strong genetic traces from the Levant areas in the near east (Turkey, Lebanon).

One of the samples the researchers obtained DNA information from
One of the samples the researchers obtained DNA information from

This genetic ancestry stands apart from more modern Egyptians who share around 8 percent of their DNA with Sub-Saharan African populations. The data offers a fascinating insight into a prolonged period where ancient Egyptian ancestry did not mix with its southern African counterparts. It also suggests that this gene flow into modern Egyptian populations occurred relatively recently, within the past 1,500 years.

The study points out that the Trans-Saharan slave trade, which moved an estimated 7 million sub-Saharan slaves up to Northern Africa, over a thousand years up to the nineteenth century, most likely was how this genetic line influenced modern Egyptians.

Now that a robust and reliable way has been developed to study the DNA of ancient remains the researchers hope to broaden their analysis across a wider geographical variety of mummies. This will not only help paint a clearer portrait of Egypt's population history but give us a greater understanding of the genetic movements of ancient civilizations in the region.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Source: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

16 comments
Martin L Hedington
Why is it they only ever find Ancient Mummy's, how come it's never a Daddy?
Bruce H. Anderson
Martin, that's because the researchers are heavily influenced by the British. Had the researchers been from the good ol' USA they would have found missies and bubbas.
LindsayDecker
The Turkish connection makes one think of Gobekli Tepe with it's large hewn stella and very Egyptian-looking bas relief carvings. Same roots?
Vincent Singleton
Aside from saying that the sample consisted of 151 mummies, did they give any clue to if they mummies belonged to a family, or unrelated? It would be the same if 3,000 years from now we found 151 bodies in one part of a city and tried to compare the results to the whole city.
woz
Vincent: "the samples dated from 1400 BCE to 400 CE". Strictly speaking that doesn't preclude one family - but do you know where your ancestors were 1000 years ago?
ChrisWalker
of course Alexander the Great could have invaded Farther Back in the timeline then is currently accepted. Have you looked at the timeline of the rise and fall of so many empires from 1000 B.C. to 1000 A.D.? its not like the people moved around a lot, the death rate at birth was how high? recovery from war if able bodied men doesnt seem to fit with the amount of men needed to build all these cities and empires in 2000 years. you need x amount if men to build x amount if cities using antiquated and SLOW and labor intensive rock quarring techniques while at the same time x amount of men are constently at war? and traveling long distences on foot and horseback? birthrate doesnt add up to the timeline of empires from 1000 b.c to 1000 a.d.
Sean Anderton
So the ancient Egyptians already had Neolithic European DNA before Alexander got there, so there was "no major shift in the DNA of Egyptian Royals?" Just reading between the lines... hmmm...
Pequod42
No doubt these finds are valid for the population examined. On the other hand, it is worth noting that examination of rulers' DNA would surely show a major shift. That's because ALexander's generals divided up his empire after his death in 323 BC. After that time the rulers of Egypt were descendents of one of those leaders, Ptolemy. Cleopatra, who lived some 300 years after Alexander's death, was a descendant of Ptolemy, as was her brother.
Max Cobia
There was slavery that didn't involve white people? Is this really true?
Stickmaker
Just remember, the empire of Ancient Egypt was around for longer than it's been gone. Maybe we're just in an unusually long interdynastic period. :-)