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Sarcophagus of Tadja, Abusir el-Meleq. | bpk/Aegyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, SMB/Sandra Steiss
Archaeology

Scientists Finally Break the Mummy DNA Code

Genomes sequenced from ancient Egyptian mummies have more in common with modern Europeans than modern Egyptians.

A A ll the scientists had were the heads. The mummies had lost their lower bodies and limbs back in Egypt more than a century ago when the ancient remains were first excavated from a vast burial complex near the desert settlement of Abusir el-Maleq. But the heads would be enough. In an achievement that many in the scientific community had long dismissed as impossible, a team of German, British, and Polish researchers successfully sequenced the first genome-wide DNA from ancient Egyptian mummies.

This first-ever sequencing of mummy DNA came more than 30 years after a young Swedish researcher claimed to have cloned nuclear DNA from a 2,400-year-old mummy using what was then a breakthrough sequencing method called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). In the ensuing decades, the original 1985 study was proven to be riddled with contamination from modern DNA, and recent attempts to sequence the genome of King Tutankhamun were met with similar skepticism that ancient DNA could survive intact after centuries of baking in the desert sun.
But the new study, published this week in the journal Nature Communications, utilized state-of-the-art sequencing technology and painstaking anti-contamination techniques to recover, enrich, and analyze DNA from 90 mummies who were buried from 1380 BC to 425 AD. The researchers’ carefully documented methodology seems to have won over mummy DNA skeptics and believers alike.
Albert Zink, one of the lead scientists involved with the controversial King Tut DNA analysis, told Science that the new paper “finally proves to everyone that there’s DNA preserved in ancient Egyptian mummies.”
Map of Egypt, showing the archaeological site of Abusir el-Melek (orange X), and the location of the modern Egyptian samples used in the study (orange circles). | Annette Guenzel/Nature Communications