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Mummy DNA Unravels Genetic Secrets of Ancient Egyptians

May 31, 2017 12:39 PM EDT
Egyptian mummy

(Photo : Patrick Landmann/Cairo Museum/Getty Images)

Researchers discovered a valuable trove of human DNA from mummies that unveiled genetic secrets of ancient Egyptians, particularly their relationship to modern Egyptians -- or lack thereof. It turns out, the mummies' ancestry is greatly different from the genetic roots of people who live in Egypt now.

According to a report from Nature, the team used data from 90 mummies buried between 1380 B.C. during Egypt's New Kingdom and 425 A.D. during the Roman period. They discovered that the mummies' closest relatives were ancient farmers from a region that includes modern Israel and Jordan. Meanwhile, modern Egyptians share more DNA with the people of central Africa.

Previous discoveries have already suggested a possible relationship between Egypt and the Middle East, but this new study proves there are actual genetic ties between the two.

"It is very nice that this study has now provided empirical evidence for this at the genetic level," evolutionary anthropologist Omer Gokcumen said.

The researchers said that it's possible there was a pulse of sub-Saharan African DNA that occurred in Egypt about 700 years ago, mixing Egyptians and Africans from further south. However, it doesn't account for the mummies' close ties to the people of the Middle East.

"This is the first glimpse of the genetic history of Egypt," co-author Johannes Krause, a palaeogeneticist at the Max Planck Institute, pointed out. "But it's really just the start."

There have been countless of mummies already unearthed, but Egypt's intense heat and practice of embalming made the recovery of intact DNA incredibly challenging. Instead of trying to get it from soft tissue, the team sought DNA from bone and teeth. Contamination was avoided by screening the mummies from anyone who handled them.

"More than half of the mummies we studied had pretty decent DNA preservation," Kraus said.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

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