When many people think of ancient Egypt, the image of a mummy often comes to mind because of how well ancient Egyptians were at preserving their dead. But while scientists have long wanted to study the genetic makeup of a mummy, they only recently have been able to. Interestingly, they found that modern Egyptians don’t seem to share much DNA with those who died and were buried in Egypt during ancient times.
Hot temperatures destroy Egyptian mummy DNA
Ancient Egyptians are known for preserving their dead so well that even the skin could be kept in amazing condition for centuries through their mummification practices. However, according to Popular Science, those practices don’t do much in the way of protecting the genetic makeup of a mummy. The extremely dry, hot climate in Egypt still did a number on the DNA of mummies, as heat can speed up the degradation process.
Now a group of researchers has finally been able to examine the genetic makeup of the first mummy group that managed to avoid being contaminated. They published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.
First study of mummy DNA
To conduct the study, archeologists examined the mummified remains of 151 different people from a variety of different kinds of burials. They ranged from the most basic interment, which would have been for someone with a very low status or position, to very lavish burials indicating that the mummy was an important person during their lifetime. Every mummy they looked at was found at the archeological site at Abusir el-Maleq, which is about 70 miles to Cairo’s south.
The researchers especially focused on each mummy’s mitochondrial DNA, which only comes from the person’s mother, unlike the DNA that is usually being referenced, which is in the nucleus of the person’s cell and is inherited from both parents. The reason the researchers looked at the mitochondrial DNA is because it tends to be better at illustrating how genes changed over time. It indicates how people groups moved and met in different parts of the globe.
What they found by studying mummy DNA
The researchers found that the demographics of the Egyptians didn’t change that much from 1400 BC to 400 AD, which was the time period during which each mummy in the study lived. However, they discovered that the DNA from each mummy was significantly different from the genetic makeup of modern Egyptians. They explained that this means that for 1800 years of history, there was very little change but between 400 AD and now, there has been a lot of change.
They said that the mummies they looked at appeared to be closely related to the people who were living in what is now Israel, Turkey and Palestine. However, modern day Egyptians are more closely related to people groups from sub-Saharan Africa. Researchers hope to do more studies like this one to get a better picture of when the DNA changed, but they suspect that the sub-Saharan genes could have started entering Egypt around the time that the slave trade took off.