Scientists extract DNA from Egypt's mummies

Cesar Mills
May 31, 2017

The mummy DNA was specifically linked to the archaeological site Abusir el-Meleq, which is along the Nile River just south of Cairo.

The study found that ancient Egyptians were most closely related to ancient populations in the Levant - modern day Syria, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon - and were closely related to Neolithic populations from Europe and the Anatolian Peninsula. Although some of the first extractions of ancient DNA were from mummified remains, scientists have raised doubts as to whether genetic data, especially nuclear genome data, from mummies would be reliable, even if it could be recovered. Because of its geographically narrow source, the researchers acknowledged their findings may hold true for only those who lived in that area, as opposed to all of ancient Egypt.

But an worldwide team of scientists has recovered and analysed ancient DNA from Egyptian mummies dating from around 1400BC to 400AD.

A team of scientists is taking the wraps off the genetic history of mummies by studying the first genome data derived from these long-preserved Egyptian bodies.

Experts recovered mitochondrial genomes from 90 individuals, and genome-wide datasets from three individuals.

Modern-day Egyptians are living on the same land as their ancient counterparts, but that doesn't make them the same: Scientists who analyzed the genes of mummies from ancient Egypt say the people in that civilization were more closely related to people from western Asia than today's Egyptians, who have substantially more genetic influence from sub-Saharan Africa.

For this study, an worldwide 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.

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They also saw a clear genetic continuity right across the 1300-year time period of the studied mummies, despite the fact that over that time course Egypt was invaded by the Greeks, the Romans and Nubians. Additionally, for three of them, we were able to get well-preserved nuclear DNA.

The study, titled "Ancient Egyptian mummy genomes suggest an increase of Sub-Saharan African ancestry in post-Roman periods" and published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, offers insights into ancient and modern Egypt.

The mummies were buried at Abusir el-Meleq, which was an important religious and trading centre. Did foreign invaders change the genetic makeup: "for example, did Egyptians become more "European" after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt?" Credit: Graphic: Annette Guenzel. "The genetic impact from Sub-Saharan Africa appeared much more recently, in the last 1,500 years".

The study found that ancient Egyptians were most closely related to ancient populations in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey and Europe. It turns out that, on a genetic level, the ancient Egyptians aren't so different from modern people living in the Near East.

"What we show in our paper is that soft tissue is extremely bad, so you should not look at soft tissue, you should actually look at bones and teeth; they are much better preserved in ancient mummies", he said.

They were able to use the data gathered to test previous hypotheses drawn from archaeological and historical data, and from studies of modern DNA.

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