Egyptian Mummy DNA Study Suggests Close Ties With Middle East, Europe

Many treasures have been found in the mummy-laden crypts of ancient Egyptians, such as items made of gold, silver and other precious metals. But the mummies themselves contain a very valuable material—DNA—holding important information about the ancient Egyptians and whence they came. Now, for the first time, researchers have analyzed DNA from a large number of mummies, using a method they say avoids the potential for contamination, shedding light on the mysteries of old Egypt.

In a study published May 30 in the journal Nature Communications, scientists looked at DNA from 151 mummified Egyptians, which were entombed from about 1400 B.C. to just after 400 A.D., in the Roman period. They found that the genetic material within the mummies was more similar to ancient peoples of the Near East and the Levant (an area of the eastern Mediterranean including Israel and Palestine) than it is to modern Egyptians. Their analysis suggests that conquests by Alexander the Great and other foreigners didn’t have as large a genetic influence on ancient Egyptians as some have thought, says study first author Verena Schuenemann, with the Institute for Archaeological Sciences at Germany’s University of Tübingen. The study also shows genetic linkage between ancient Egyptians and Neolithic peoples from modern-day Turkey and Europe, Schuenemann says.

Three mummies had enough DNA preserved to allow the scientists to look at genes from throughout their genome. One of these had a gene “which contributes to lighter skin pigmentation and was shown to be at high frequency in Neolithic Anatolia,” or modern-day Turkey, the researchers wrote.

The sarcophagus of Tadja, from the ancient Egyptian site of Abusir el-Meleq, contained one of the mummies whose DNA was analyzed. bpk/Aegyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, SMB/Sandra Steiss

The researchers obtained mitochondrial DNA—genetic material found outside a cell’s nucleus,…

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