DNA from African mummies tie these folk to Middle Easterners

High-tech genetic methods and skilled techniques reveal genetic origin to the east, not the south


New and extremely careful techniques now show Egyptian mummies can be a reliable source of ancient DNA. An analysis of 90 of these African mummies revealed family ties to the Middle East, not to other sites in Africa.

bpk/Aegyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, SMB/Sandra Steiss

Ancient mummies are yielding a new treasure — DNA. The genetic material unwrapped from 90 of these preserved bodies in Egypt, a part of North Africa, show their family roots extend seemingly to the Middle East. They appear to have far less in common with ancient peoples throughout most of the rest of Africa.

What this means, researchers now say, is that the ancient Egyptians had relatives in what is now the Middle East, and possibly Europe.

An Egyptian mummy provided the first sample of ancient human DNA in 1985. But scientists had doubts about how trustworthy the DNA was. The reasons? The chemicals used to mummify bodies can degrade DNA. So can Egypt’s steamy climate. And, there were some worries that any tested samples might have been tainted with DNA from the people who worked on them when they were first unearthed.

Enter Verena Schuenemann and her team. Schuenemann had been studying the genetics of ancient microbes at the University of Tübingen in Germany. She had become an expert at finding really old DNA. And to do this, she used the latest technology to sequence the DNA — map its building blocks to read its genes.

These researchers extracted and analyzed two types of DNA. The mitochondrial (My-toh-KON-dree-ul) type is genetic material that passes directly from a mother to her child. The other type, from cell nuclei, is passed down from both parents. 

The researchers focused on sampling teeth and bones. These harder body parts had more preserved DNA than did soft tissues, such as muscle. The scientists screened for the highest quality samples and then checked for any sign of contamination with modern DNA.

Story continues below map.

This map shows Egypt (orange, lower left) in North Africa and its connections to the Middle East through Babylon (center yellow) and the Arabian Desert (white). Across the Mediterranean Sea (upper left and center) is Europe; far below Egypt is East Africa and sites where remains of early ancestors of humans have been unearthed.CircaSassy/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Their hard work paid off. The team got usable mitochondrial DNA from 90 mummies. Three also yielded readable samples of the nuclear DNA.

The mummies date from 1388 B.C. to A.D. 426. All came from a popular burial site in central Egypt. Called Abusir el-Meleq, this site was a hub for a religious cult that was devoted to Osiris (Oh-SY-ris). That’s the ancient Egyptian god of the dead. A Jewish-German archaeologist had excavated the site in 1905. At the time, he reported evidence of a Greek influence on the burial site. But he offered few details about individual graves. And most of his research never survived World War II. 

The new analysis reveals genetic ties to Greece and the Middle East. This is not a huge surprise since Egypt was a center of travel and trade at that time. But today’s Egyptians are more closely related to sub-Saharan Africans to the south. Those genetic links were notably missing in the mummy DNA. Their absence suggests that foreigners from sub-Saharan Africa moved into the region later, the researchers say.

Schuenemann’s group described its findings May 30 in Nature Communications.

The new analysis leaves many open questions. The mummies found at Abusir el-Meleq come from a range of social classes. Even so, the researchers point out that people from just one site can’t be counted on to reflect all of ancient Egypt’s people. Still, the study shows that mummies can offer a glimpse into that nation’s genetic roots. 

Helen Thompson is the associate digital editor at Science News. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

More Stories from Science News Explores on Archaeology