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Genetics: Unravelling ancient Egyptian mummy genomes

Nature Communications

May 31, 2017

The genetic composition of ancient Egyptian populations is revealed in an analysis of ancient mummy DNA published online in Nature Communications. The samples span a period of around 1,300 years and suggest that ancient Egyptians shared more ancestry with Near Easterners than modern Egyptians.

As the crossroad of continents in the ancient Mediterranean world, Egypt experienced long lasting interactions with other important African, Asian and European cultures from the first millennium BCE onwards. Although extensive archaeological examination has revealed the historical record of human migration and movement in this region, genetic studies using ancient DNA of deceased persons have been difficult because of the poor preservation of ancient remains.

Johannes Krause and colleagues present new results from the examination of 90 ancient Egyptian mitochondrial genomes as well as genome-wide datasets from three individuals obtained from Pre-Ptolemaic, Ptolemaic, and Roman mummies of Abusir el-Meleq, Middle Egypt. The researchers find ancient Egyptians were genetically more similar to Near Easterners (populations that span Western Asia and the Middle East), and show that the Sub-Saharan genetic components seen in modern Egyptians was a recent addition. However, they note that the genetic data were obtained from a single site in Middle Egypt and may not be representative for all of ancient Egypt.

Although this is not the first analysis of ancient Egyptian mummy DNA, the authors propose that their results are the first reliable dataset, owing to their use of modern sequencing techniques and authenticity tests to ensure the ancient origin of the obtained data. These discoveries pave the way towards a direct understanding of the complex population history of Egypt.

doi: 10.1038/ncomms15694

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