Ancient mummy DNA reveals European ancestry of Egyptians

As the genetic material comes from just one site in Middle Egypt, the researchers said the study may not be representative for all of ancient Egyptians.

The study helps tie some of the loose ends around the river Nile in Middle Egypt and the ancient population that has inhabited the region for thousands of years.

They are proud that they managed to prove Egyptian mummies can be a reliable source of ancient DNA, and can greatly contribute to a more accurate and refined understanding of Egypt's population history. The mummies tested did not share strong genetic links to Africa often found in modern Egyptians.

A team of German researchers has successfully sequenced DNA from ancient Egyptian mummies.

For this study, an global team of researchers from the University of Tuebingen, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, the University of Cambridge, the Polish Academy of Sciences, and the Berlin Society of Anthropology, Ethnology and Prehistory, looked at genetic differentiation and population continuity over a 1,300 year timespan, and compared these results to modern populations. "The hot Egyptian climate, the high humidity levels in many tombs and some of the chemicals used in mummification techniques, contribute to DNA degradation and are thought to make the long-term survival of DNA in Egyptian mummies unlikely", said Johannes Krause, co-author of the study. He is director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.

They examined a total of 90 ancient mitochondrial genomes, as well as the genomes of three individuals.

Many treasures have been found in the mummy-laden crypts of ancient Egyptians, such as items made of gold, silver and other precious metals.

Yet the researchers were able to extract enough DNA to do a full genetic analysis, and this could open the door for more studies in the future. It turns out that, on a genetic level, the ancient Egyptians aren't so different from modern people living in the Near East.

"The analysis of ancient DNA provides a crucial piece of the puzzle and can serve as an important corrective or supplement to inferences drawn from literary and archaeological evidence and modern DNA data". The aim of the study was to determine whether ancient populations were affected by foreign conquest and domination during the time period under study and compared their genomes with modern Egyptians.

Wolfgang Haak, group leader at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, said: "The genetics of the Abusir el Meleq community did not undergo any major shifts during the 1,300-year timespan we studied, suggesting that the population remained genetically relatively unaffected by foreign conquest and rule". Foreign invasions of Egypt in fact seemed to have had very little impact on the DNA of these ancient people.

Similar studies from remains sourced from other parts of modern Egypt may tell a different story - but, Krause and his team recount, it is a story that until this piece of research was considered impossible to tell. "The movement of people, goods and ideas throughout Egypt's long history has given rise to an intricate cultural and genetic exchange and entanglement". Why this has only occurred so recently is not known, but the researchers speculate that it may have something to do with increased mobility along the Nile, more migration, or even perhaps the development of the trans-Saharan slave trade that began roughly 1,300 years ago.

  • Carolyn Briggs