Ancient mummy DNA reveals European ancestry of Egyptians

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London, May 31 (IANS) Analysing ancient DNA from mummies, an international team of researchers has found that ancient Egyptians were most closely related to ancient populations from the Near East, and were also closely related to populations from modern-day Turkey and Europe.

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, also showed that modern Egyptians share more ancestry with Sub-Saharan Africans than ancient Egyptians did.

For this study, the researchers looked at genetic differentiation and population continuity over a 1,300-year timespan, and compared these results to modern populations.

The researchers successfully recovered and analysed ancient DNA from Egyptian mummies dating from approximately 1400 BCE to 400 CE.

The team sampled 151 mummified individuals. In total, the authors recovered mitochondrial genomes from 90 individuals, and genome-wide datasets from three individuals.

They were able to use the data gathered to test previous hypotheses drawn from archaeological and historical data, and from studies of modern DNA.

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“In particular, we were interested in looking at changes and continuities in the genetic makeup of the ancient inhabitants of Abusir el-Meleq,” said Alexander Peltzer, one of the lead authors of the study from the University of Tuebingen in Germany.

Abusir el-Meleq was an important religious and trading centre in Egypt.

The team wanted to determine if the investigated ancient populations were affected at the genetic level by foreign conquest and domination during the time period under study, and compared these populations to modern Egyptian comparative populations.

“We wanted to test if the conquest of Alexander the Great and other foreign powers has left a genetic imprint on the ancient Egyptian population,” explained Verena Schuenemann, group leader at the University of Tuebingen and one of the lead authors of this study.

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The study found that ancient Egyptians were most closely related to ancient populations in the Levant, and were also closely related to Neolithic populations from the Anatolian Peninsula and Europe.

“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,” said Wolfgang Haak, group leader at Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany.

The data shows that modern Egyptians share approximately eight per cent more ancestry on the nuclear level with Sub-Saharan African populations than with ancient Egyptians.

“This suggests that an increase in Sub-Saharan African gene flow into Egypt occurred within the last 1,500 years,” Stephan Schiffels from Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, said.

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Possible causal factors may have been improved mobility down the Nile River, increased long-distance trade between Sub-Saharan Africa and Egypt, and the trans-Saharan slave trade that began approximately 1,300 years ago.

This study counters prior skepticism about the possibility of recovering reliable ancient DNA from Egyptian mummies.

Despite the potential issues of degradation and contamination caused by climate and mummification methods, the authors were able to use high-throughput DNA sequencing and robust authentication methods to ensure the ancient origin and reliability of the data.

The study thus shows that Egyptian mummies can be a reliable source of ancient DNA, and can greatly contribute to a more accurate and refined understanding of Egypt’s population history.

–IANS

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