Mummy DNA shows that the ancients don’t have much in common with modern Egyptians

Scientists have extracted and analyzed DNA from mummies that are thousands of years old, and they have found that the ancient Egyptians are actually more genetically similar to people living today in the Near East — countries like Israel, Lebanon, and Syria — than modern-day Egyptians.

For a long time, we thought that mummies preserved no DNA. In 2010, a team analyzed ancient DNA from 16 royal mummies, but the method they used wasn’t very good at distinguishing actual mummy DNA from modern DNA that might have contaminated it over the years. In a study published today in the journal Nature Communications, scientists used a new, more precise method of DNA sequencing to analyze genome data from several mummies spanning different time periods in ancient Egyptian history.

The team investigated a total of 151 mummies from a site about 100 kilometers south of Cairo. These mummies were excavated in the early 20th century, and radiocarbon dating showed that their lives spanned 1,300 years, or from about 1388 BCE to 426 CE. There was no usable genetic material in any of the remaining soft tissue, but some left in the bones and teeth. Ninety of these mummies had incomplete DNA, and only three retained a completely intact genome. These three mummies are the ones the scientists focused on.

Map of Egypt, showing the archaeological site of Abusir-el Meleq (orange X), and the location of the modern Egyptian samples used in the study (orange circles).
Photo: Nature Communications

The team then compared the ancient mummy DNA to the DNA of both ancient and modern people in the same region. It turns out that, on a genetic level, the ancient Egyptians aren’t so different from modern people living in the Near East. In fact, they have more in common with those in the Near East than today’s Egyptians. For example, the mummies didn’t have any DNA from sub-Saharan Africa, whereas about 20 percent of today’s Egyptians have sub-Saharan genes. Study lead author Johannes Krause told Science that the modern-day variation might be because either the spread of Islam or more trade increased contact between the different parts of Africa.

The DNA sequencing method used in the study makes the results robust. The researchers looked at any DNA in a given sample, and then isolated the genetic material that might be human. The team then looked for patterns of DNA damage we only see in true ancient DNA, allowing them to ignore the DNA that might be from contamination.

The findings are interesting, but even more promising is the fact that the method could pave the way for even more genetic studies of mummies so we can understand more details about these ancient people.

Do you have an unusual story to tell? E-mail