(CNN) The ancient Egyptians and their modern counterparts have less in common than one might think. It was, at least genetically, a team of scientists who discovered it.
Researchers from the University of Tübingen and the Max Planck Institute for the Sciences of Human History in Jena, both in Germany, have decoded the genome of the ancient Egyptians for the first time, with unexpected results.
Publish your findings in Natural communicationsthe study concluded that the preserved remains found at Abusir-el Meleq, Middle Egypt, were the closest genetic relatives of Neolithic and Bronze Age populations from the Near East, Anatolia, and Europeans from the eastern Mediterranean.
In comparison, modern Egyptians share much more DNA with sub-Saharan populations.
These discoveries upended years of theory, forcing Egyptologists to reassess the history of the region while opening new tools for scientists working in the field.
Correct past mistakes
Depending on how you look at it, the ancient Egyptians have the privilege or ignominy of being one of the most studied people of antiquity. The scientists have practically undressed the mothers, diagnostic from beyond the grave and exposed miscarriages And 3,000-year-old scams.
However, the extraction of genomic data constitutes a new frontier for Egyptologists.
Scientists took 166 bone samples from 151 mummies, dating from around 1400 BC to 400 AD, extracting DNA from 90 individuals and mapping the complete genome in three cases.
Previous DNA analyzes of mummies have been treated with a necessary dose of skepticism, says Professor Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute.
“When you touch a bone, you probably leave more DNA on the bone than is inside,” he argued. “Contamination is a major problem… Only in the last five or six years has it become possible to study the DNA of ancient humans, because we can now show whether DNA is ancient or not by (its) chemical properties.”
Heat and high humidity in tombs, coupled with certain chemicals involved in mummification, all contribute to DNA degradation, the journal adds, but it describes its findings as “the first set of reliable data obtained from of the ancient Egyptians.
Analyzing samples spanning more than a millennium, researchers looked for genetic differences from modern-day Egyptians. They found that the entire sample showed a close connection to a group of ancient non-African populations based in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Krause describes the large-scale data set obtained by examining mitochondrial genomes: “It’s not just one person’s DNA. It’s the DNA of parents, grandparents, grandparents’ parents, great-grandparents’ parents, etc.
“So if we don’t find sub-Saharan African ancestry in these people, it’s pretty representative, at least for Middle Egypt.”
Krause hypothesizes that ancient Northern Egypt would be much the same, if not more, related to the Near East. Ancient southern Egypt, however, may be a different matter, where populations lived closer to Nubia, home of the “black pharaohs” in what is now Sudan.
“The genetics of the Abusir el-Meleq community have not undergone any major changes over the 1,300 years we have studied,” said Wolfgang Haak, group leader at the Max Planck Institute.
This period covered the reign of Alexander the Great (332-323 BC), the Ptolemaic dynasty (323-30 BC), and part of Roman rule (30 BC-641 AD). Strict social structures and legal incentives to marry along ethnic lines within these communities may have played a role in the Egyptians’ genetic stasis, the paper speculates.
“A lot of people think that foreign invaders … brought a lot of genetic ancestry to the area,” Krause said. “People expected that over time Egypt would become more European, but we are seeing exactly the opposite.”
Modern Egyptians were found to “inherit 8% more ancestry from African ancestors” than the mummies studied. The paper cites increased mobility along the Nile, increased long-distance trade and the era of the trans-Saharan slave trade as potential reasons.
The team’s findings come with an obvious caveat: “All of our genetic data (were) obtained from a single site in Middle Egypt and may not be representative of the entire population.” ‘Ancient Egypt,’ the document concedes.
Although the scope of the study may be limited, the team believes it has made some technical advances.
“I expect there will be a ton of ancient Egyptian mummy genomes (mapped) in the next couple of years,” Krause said, adding that “several groups” are following his team’s lead.
“We can always do more research. This isn’t the end. It’s just the beginning.”