This study’s results are going to disappoint many people invested in the history of the ancient Egyptians – the Afrocentists who say they were black, modern Egyptians who view themselves as their lineal descendants and the fringe folks who claim a link between the ancients and extraterrestrials.
In the first full genome sequencing of ancient Egyptians, spanning a 1,300-year-period dating back to 1400 B.C., scientists have concluded the people of the pharaonic period were more closely related to modern Europeans and inhabitants of the Near East than to present-day Egyptians.
The racial make up of the civilization that built the Sphinx and the pyramids has long been debated, with theories put forward by Afrocentrists that the ancient Egyptians were black, a fact supposedly suppressed by racism. The wider assumption has been that the ancient Egyptians were indigenous to North Africa. With Egypt’s thousands of mummies – most with soft tissue preserved – it seems that the question should have been answered long ago by DNA.
The problem has been that mummified soft tissue is contaminated, making it difficult to determine if the obtained DNA is ancient or modern. In this latest study, a team of international scientists from the U.K., Germany, Poland and Australia developed techniques for extracting genetic material from the bones of 151 mummified heads that had been collected from Abusir el-Meleq, about 60 miles south of Cairo. The scientists collected 90 samples of mitochondrial DNA – which carry only a few genes and provide only a partial picture – and three samples of complete genomes.
The new study, led by Johannes Krause, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, used next-generation sequencing methods to read DNA present in a sample and separate those that resembled human DNA. The process allowed researchers to identify unique damage patterns associated only with ancient DNA, making the new analysis much more reliable.
“It succeeds where previous studies on Egyptian mummies have failed or fallen short,” said Hannes Schroeder, an ancient DNA researcher at the University of Copenhagen.
The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.
The researchers acknowledged their sample “may not be representative for all of ancient Egypt,” however, they concluded the mummified individuals were “distinct from modern Egyptians, and closer towards Near Eastern and European samples.”
“Our analyses reveal that ancient Egyptians shared more ancestry with Near Easterners than present-day Egyptians,” they wrote.
And they added: “We find that ancient Egyptians are most closely related to Neolithic and Bronze Age samples in the Levant, as well as to Neolithic Anatolian and European populations.
“When comparing this pattern with modern Egyptians, we find that the ancient Egyptians are more closely related to all modern and ancient European populations that we tested, likely due to the additional African component in the modern population.”
“They have these closest genetic links to the Fertile Crescent and the eastern populations of what’s now Israel,” noted project leader Kraus.
“It certainly changes the way that we think about the ancient Egyptians being actually very closely related to the Near East. So genetically they’re a Near Eastern population; they’re not an African population, if you define African as sub-Saharan Africa,” Krause said.
The data reveals modern Egyptians share about 8 percent more ancestry on the nuclear level with sub-Saharan African populations than with ancient Egyptians, researchers said.
The study suggests the influx of sub-Saharan DNA, beginning approximately 1,500 years ago, is linked to the rise and spread of Islam. The trans-Saharan slave trade moved between 6 and 7 million sub-Saharan slaves to Northern Africa over a span of some 1,250 years, reaching its high point in the 19th century, the authors note.
In contrast, the studies showed genetic stability in the ancient samples, despite centuries of conquest.
“The genetics of the Abusir el-Meleq community did not undergo any major shifts during the 1,300-year timespan we studied, suggesting that the population remained genetically relatively unaffected by foreign conquest and rule,” noted Wolfgang Haak, group leader at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
The results have drawn a call for caution, not only because of the limited sample size but for the political ramifications.
“There has been this very strong attempt throughout the history of Egyptology to disassociate ancient Egyptians from the modern population,” said Professor Stephen Quirke, an Egyptologist at University College London.
“I’m particularly suspicious of any statement that may have the unintended consequences of asserting – yet again from a northern European or North American perspective – that there’s a discontinuity there.
“When we are discussing it, we have to be much more sensitive to how these kinds of statements are read outside where we are at the moment.”