Ancient Egyptian sarcophagus to be opened on live TV this weekend

The artifact will be opened on Sunday, for the first time in millennia, at an undisclosed location in Egypt.

  • The show is called Expedition Unknown: Egypt Live and it airs Sunday, April 7, at 8 p.m. E.T.
  • The undisclosed site is reported to have produced multiple ancient artifacts.
  • It might be little more than a media spectacle, but some say that's not a problem as long as it gets people interested in the preservation of ancient artifacts.

A team of archaeologists and other specialists in Egypt plan to open a sarcophagus containing a 3,000-year-old mummy on Sunday as part of a live Discovery Channel special called "Expedition Unknown: Egypt Live".

The show will follow host Josh Gates, Egyptologist Zahi Hawass and secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt, Mostafa Waziri, as they explore the tunnels and inner chambers of an excavation site outside the the city of Minya. What should you expect?

"Kind of the beauty of this is, I don't know, and I think that's the fun of it," Gates told NPR's Here & Now. "We know that there are a lot of mummies that are down there."

Discovery said in a statement that the team had previously discovered a "mysterious limestone sarcophagus found buried deep within the complex," and that "the identity of the mummy inside has been a mystery for 3,000 years... Possibly until now."

The ancient Egyptians, who maintained dynasties from roughly 3,100 BCE to 30 BCE, had very particular beliefs about the soul's ongoing connection to the body after death.

"[They] really believed they needed to be connected to their mortal world, and so along with being mummified themselves, they would often take with them a lot of personal objects from their life down into their tombs," Gates told NPR. "I think we do have a real expectation that we're going to be finding some really interesting relics and artifacts down there."

An archaeologist brushes a newly-discovered mummy laid inside a sarcophagus, part of a collection found in burial chambers dating to the Ptolemaic era (323-30 BC) at the necropolis of Tuna el-Gebel in Egypt's southern Minya province, about 340 kilometres south of the capital Cairo, on February 2, 2019. Photo credit: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED / GETTY

The exact location of the excavation site, which is reported to have produced multiple recent discoveries, has not been revealed due to concerns of looters — a problem that has plagued the region for millennia. For example, the tomb of King Tutankhamen had been looted at least twice before it was opened in 1923 amid worldwide press coverage.

Gates said exploring the ancient tombs should be done with respect.

"I do think that the responsible thing to do in cases like this is to investigate and preserve and conserve the history of these places. But I do think you have to approach it with real reverence," he told NPR. "I think we can't forget that Egyptians did have a strong belief that their tombs needed to be protected, in a sense, and we are outsiders to that tomb."

So, does opening the sarcophagus really warrant a two-hour TV special? It depends how you look at it.

"It's a media spectacle in the end — but it could make people love antiquities and is a good promotional opportunity for tourism, if done right," an Egyptian archeologist, who asked to remain anonymous, told AFP news agency.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.