Successful analysis of ancient Egyptian mummy DNA

International team of scientists successfully recovered and analysed ancient DNA from Egyptian mummies dating from approximately 1400 BC to 400 AD, establishing ancient Egyptian mummies as a reliable source for genetic material to study the ancient past.

Sarcophagus of Tadja from Abusir el-Meleq (by Aegyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung & Sandra Steiss)

For the purpose of the study the scientists looked at genetic differentiation and population continuity over a 1,300 year timespan, and compared these results to modern populations. The team sampled 151 mummified individuals from the archaeological site of Abusir el-Meleq, from two anthropological collections hosted and curated at the University of Tuebingen and at the Museum of Prehistory of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. In total, genomes of over 90 individuals and genome-wide datasets from three individuals were collected.

Map showing the site of Abusir el-Meleq (X) and modern samples (by Annette Guenzel)

The recently published study allowed also for analysis of the first genome-wide nuclear data from three individuals. Its results show that modern Egyptians share more ancestry with Sub-Saharan Africans than ancient Egyptians did, whereas ancient Egyptians were found to be most closely related to ancient people from the Near East. Genetic studies of ancient Egyptian mummies are rare due to methodological and contamination issues. According to experts, 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. However, the ability of the researchers of the recent study to extract nuclear DNA from such mummies and to show its reliability using wide authentication methods is a breakthrough that allows for further direct study of mummified remains.

(after PhysOrg, Popular Archaeology, Aegyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, Annette Guenzel & Sandra Steiss)

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