Modern Egyptians Are More Like Sub-Saharan Africans Than Ancient Egyptians, Suggests Study on DNA of Ancient Mummies

Genomic analysis of ancient Egyptian mummies shows that the latter shared more ancestry with Near East populations while modern Egyptians share more DNA with sub-Saharan Africans. The paper is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Sarcophagus of Tadja, at archaeological site called Abusir el-Meleq. Photo credits: bpk/Aegyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, SMB/Sandra Steiss.

Ancient DNA from Egyptian mummies has been successfully recovered and examined by an international team of researchers working with the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena. The findings provide us with further insight on both ancient Egyptians, and modern ones. The latter appear to be more closely related to Sub-Saharan African communities than to their ancient counterparts.

Recovering and analysing DNA from ancient mummies of Egypt is no easy task. Even if it is recovered, the question remains as to whether it is reliable or not—an issue acknowledged by study senior author Johannes Krause according to whom “the potential preservation of DNA has to be regarded with skepticism”. Krause explains that the environmental conditions of Egypt (from its hot temperature to high humidity in tombs) as well as some mummification chemicals might easily degrade DNA. However, the team of researchers were able to extract nuclear DNA from the group of mummies using powerful authentication techniques that promised to pave the way to further research.

A group of 151 mummies dating back from around 1400 BCE to 400 CE found from archaeological site of Abusir el-Meleq were sampled. Mitochondrial DNA from 90 of them was recovered, and genome-wide data was obtained from 3 individuals. These were examined in terms of the modifications and continuities in the genes, explains lead author Alexander Peltzer, to find out the extent to which foreign conquest and domination influenced the ancient Egyptians down to their DNA. This data was, then, compared with modern Egyptian populations.

Archaeological site of Abusir-el Meleq (marked with an orange X), and the locations of the modern Egyptian samples taken for the study (denoted by orange circles). Graphic: Annette Guenzel. Credits: Nature Communications.

The findings show that the genetics of the Abusir el-Meleq people did not experience great change for 1,300 years, implying that foreign conquest did not exert a major genetic effect on them. Also, ancient Egyptians were found to be more closely related to Near East populations. On the other hand, modern Egyptians are not so much like ancient Egyptians: rather, they share around 8% more ancestry with Sub-Saharan Africans than with their geographical ancestors, suggesting that a greater gene flow from Sub-Saharan Africans occurred during the last 1,500 years. This might have happened as a consequence of improved transport linking the Nile to Sub-Saharan Africa.

This new study establishes Egyptian mummies as a reliable source of ancient DNA, opening yet another ‘time machine’ to studying the peoples of the distant past. Egypt is already considered a model for old civilisations: its well-documented history coupled with its geographical location allowing for interactions with many different populations spanning over 3 continents (Africa, Asia, and Europe) allow researchers to use its data to look into the past. This field of research has now been taken a step further with the major scientific headway in the study of ancient DNA. Furthermore, the findings can help us paint a more refined image of Egypt’s history.

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