Genetic analysis reveals a close relationship with Middle Easterners, Europeans and Anatolians, not central Africans.
The tombs of ancient Egypt have yielded golden collars and ivory bracelets, but another treasure — human DNA — has proved elusive. Now, scientists have captured sweeping genomic information from Egyptian mummies. It reveals that mummies were closely related to ancient Middle Easterners, hinting that northern Africans might have different genetic roots from people south of the Sahara desert.
The study, published on 30 May in Nature Communications, includes data from 90 mummies buried between 1380 BC, during Egypt’s New Kingdom, and ad 425, in the Roman era. The findings show that the mummies’ closest kin were ancient farmers from a region that includes present-day Israel and Jordan. Modern Egyptians, by contrast, have inherited more of their DNA from central Africans.
Archaeological discoveries and historical documents suggest close ties between Egypt and the Middle East, but “it is very nice that this study has now provided empirical evidence for this at the genetic level”, says evolutionary anthropologist Omer Gokcumen of the State University of New York at Buffalo.
The scientists obtained information about variations in mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mother to child, from 90 mummies. Because of contamination, the team was able to acquire detailed nuclear DNA, which is inherited from both parents, from only three mummies.
Both types of genomic material showed that ancient Egyptians shared little DNA with modern sub-Saharan Africans. Instead, their closest relatives were people living during the Neolithic and Bronze ages in an area known as the Levant. Strikingly, the mummies were more closely related to ancient Europeans and Anatolians than to modern Egyptians.
Despite repeated conquests of Egypt, by Alexander the Great, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Assyrians — ancient Egyptians showed little genetic change.