Black or white? Ancient Egyptian race mystery now solved
- The race of the ancient Egyptians has long been a controversial subject of debate.
- Researchers used genetic information derived from mummies to shed light on the ancestry of the ancient Egyptians.
- The results suggest that the ancient Egyptians were most closely related to the peoples of the Near East, particularly from the Levant.
Egyptologists, writers, scholars, and others, have argued the race of the ancient Egyptians since at least the 1970s. Some today believe they were sub-Saharan Africans. We can see this interpretation portrayed in Michael Jackson’s 1991 music video for Remember the Time from his Dangerous album. The video, a 10-minute mini-film, includes performances by Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson.
Reactionaries, meanwhile, say that there’s never been any significant black civilizations—an utter falsehood, of course. There were several in fact, highly advanced African empires and kingdoms throughout history. Curiously, some extreme Right groups have even used blood group data to proclaim a Nordic origin to King Tutankhamun and his brethren.
The problem, it was thought, is that mummy DNA couldn’t be sequenced. But a group of international researchers, using unique methods, have overcome the barriers to do just that. They found that the ancient Egyptians were most closely related to the peoples of the Near East, particularly from the Levant. This is the Eastern Mediterranean which today includes the countries of Turkey, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. The mummies used were from the New Kingdom and a later period, (a period later than the Middle Kingdom) when Egypt was under Roman rule.
Modern Egyptians share 8% of their genome with central Africans, far more than ancient ones, according to the study, published in the journal Nature Communications. The influx of sub-Saharan genes only occurred within the last 1,500 years. This could be attributed to the trans-Saharan slave trade or just from regular, long distance trade between the two regions. Improved mobility on the Nile during this period increased trade with the interior, researchers claim.
Egypt over the span of antiquity was conquered many times including by Alexander the Great, by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and more. Researchers wanted to know if these constant waves of invaders caused any major genetic changes in the populace over time. Group leader Wolfgang Haak at the Max Planck Institute in Germany said in a press release: “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.”
The study was led by archaeogeneticist Johannes Krause, also of the Max Planck Institute. Historically, there’s been a problem finding intact DNA from ancient Egyptian mummies. “The hot Egyptian climate, the high humidity levels in many tombs and some of the chemicals used in mummification techniques, contribute to DNA degradation and are thought to make the long-term survival of DNA in Egyptian mummies unlikely,” the study noted.
It was also thought that, even if genetic material were recovered, it may not be reliable. Despite this, Krause and colleagues have been able to introduce robust DNA sequencing and verification techniques, and completed the first successful genomic testing on ancient Egyptian mummies.
Each came from Abusir el-Meleq, an archaeological site situated along the Nile, 70 miles (115 km) south of Cairo. This necropolis there houses mummies which display aspects revealing a dedication to the cult of Osiris, the green-skinned god of the afterlife.
First, the mitochondrial genomes from 90 of mummies were taken. From these, Krause and colleagues found that they could get the entire genomes from just three of the mummies in all. For this study, scientists took teeth, bone, and soft tissue samples. The teeth and bones offered the most DNA. They were protected by the soft tissue which has been preserved through the embalming process.
Researchers took these samples back to a lab in Germany. They began by sterilizing the room. Then they put the samples under UV radiation for an hour to sterilize them. From there, they were able to perform DNA sequencing.
Scientists also gathered data on Egyptian history and archaeological data of northern Africa, to give their discoveries some context. They wanted to know what changes had occurred over time. To find out, they compared the mummies’ genomes to that of 100 modern Egyptians and 125 Ethiopians. “For 1,300 years, we see complete genetic continuity,” Krause said.
The oldest mummy sequenced was from the New Kingdom, 1,388 BCE, when Egypt was at the height of its power and glory. The youngest was from 426 CE, when the country was ruled from Rome. The ability to acquire genomic data on ancient Egyptians is a dramatic achievement, which opens up new avenues of research.
One limitation according to their report, “all our genetic data were obtained from a single site in Middle Egypt and may not be representative for all of ancient Egypt.” In southern Egypt they say, the genetic makeup of the people may have been different, being closer to the interior of the continent.
Researchers in future want to determine exactly when sub-Saharan African genes seeped into the Egyptian genome and why. They’ll also want to know where ancient Egyptians themselves came from. To do so, they’ll have to identify older DNA from, as Krause said, “Back further in time, in prehistory.”
Using high-throughput DNA sequencing and cutting-edge authentication techniques, researchers proved they could retrieve reliable DNA from mummies, despite the unforgiving climate and damaging embalming techniques.
Further testing will likely contribute much knowledge to our understanding of the ancient Egyptians and perhaps even those from other places as well, helping to fill in the gaps in humanity’s collective memory.
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This article was originally published June 11, 2017. It was updated in January 2022.