How big were the ancient Egyptians

Mummy DNA: Researchers read in the genome of ancient Egyptians

First the enigmatic Hyksos, then Alexander the Great and finally the Roman Caesars, again and again strangers have ruled Egypt. They shaped the long-established residents their culture, left traces in language and art - but genetically they did not perpetuate themselves. This is the result of a large-scale study in which researchers deciphered the genome of a total of 90 ancient Egyptian mummies: The ancient Egyptian population, so their conclusion, remained largely to themselves for at least 1,300 years.

This only seems to have changed in the past centuries, reports Johannes Krause's team from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Man in Jena in the journal "Nature Communications". Because today there are large portions of DNA segments in the genome of the Egyptians that have a sub-Saharan origin. Perhaps the trade - in goods or slaves - brought so many people north along the Nile that their DNA could spread throughout the population.

This article is included in Spectrum - The Week, 22/2017

Because of the heat, high humidity and not least because of some substances that the embalmers once used, the DNA in Egyptian mummies is very poorly preserved. Earlier attempts at extraction have therefore repeatedly met with skepticism and rejection, for example a much-noticed study of the mummies from the family of the pharaohs Akhenaten and Tutankhamun. With their own study, for which they took samples from at least 151 mummified individuals, Krause and his international team of colleagues hope to have opened up new perspectives for the field of research. For the first time they have succeeded in obtaining the DNA using the most modern standard methods and using rigorous tests to ensure that no contamination leads to false results.

The researchers were able to make the so-called mitochondrial DNA legible in 90 of the 151 mummies. These DNA segments are found in large numbers in the cells and are therefore easier to identify. They reveal that the population of ancient Egypt was most closely related to contemporary populations in the Middle East and on the eastern Mediterranean coast.

The researchers were even able to sequence the nuclear DNA, i.e. the actual genetic material in the cell nuclei, of three individuals. In the bones and teeth in particular, remnants of the genetic material still survive, observed Krause and colleagues, but in the soft tissues it is much more sparsely preserved. The detected genes indicate a rather light skin color, dark eyes and a genetically determined lactose intolerance, as it is still to be found in many population groups around the world.

The 151 mummies of their investigation date from around 1400 BC. BC to AD 400, that is, they include the New Kingdom as well as Roman Egypt. The corpses were all excavated at the beginning of the 20th century at the Abu Sir al-Meleq excavation site in Middle Egypt. In the time of ancient Egypt, the place was a local center. The mummies excavated there are now kept in Tübingen and Berlin.