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Culture & Religion

The surprising difference between ancient and modern Egyptians, according to science

Genetic changes in Egypt might have been caused by trade routes. 
The Pyramids (WikiCommons)

Think of the most ancient people you can. A people with a rich history going back as far as history itself. Most of you probably went with the Egyptians. With a written history that goes back to 3100 BCE, the people of Egypt have a long and noble story rivaled only by few. Indeed, their story is so long it even continues into the now, with the nation of Egypt well known by everyone.

But according to a groundbreaking new DNA study of the ancient Egyptians, the current people of Egypt are not quite the descendants of the pyramid builders.

The study, published in Naturecommunications and undertaken by a team of researchers, carried out the first complete genome test of an ancient Egyptian mummy. Despite the renown of Egypt’s mummies, such tests are rare; given issues of contamination and DNA degradation related to mummification.

Starting with 151 mummies covering a period of 1300 years of history, the scientists were able to collect hundreds of partial genomes and three full genomes. The information they found reveals the changes in the genetic makeup of Egypt both before and since the rise of the Roman Empire.

They found that ancient Egyptians shared more genetic information with people living in the Middle East than modern Egyptians do. Likewise, the moderns are more closely related to sub-Saharan Africans than the ancients were.

But, why the changes?

Johannes Krause, one of the researchers, suggested that the genetic changes in Egypt might have been caused by improved trade routes with Sub-Saharan Africa over the last two millennia. Considering that Egypt had been a crossroads of civilization for millennia, it is not surprising that the population would reflect this genetically; with differing connections resulting in differing genetic makeups over time.

Compare this trade route hypothesis to their pre-Roman history, which featured influxes of Persians, Syrians, and Israelites. It is no wonder that they would have shared a great amount of DNA with these people. 

But most importantly, why do we care?

Knowing how the most ancient of people have evolved over time gives us insights into history that we never had before. As mentioned above, the means of this testing remains at the cutting edge of science, and there is much that we can learn from this new access to genetic information. Previously unknown migrations and interactions between peoples are now ready to be known, the effects of major events on the makeup of a people can now be studied in even greater detail. Ancient history can gain yet another layer to its story.

The first complete genome to be extracted from an Egyptian mummy has shed light on the genetic identity of the ancient Egyptians. It has also given us a new tool to look upon the past with. To understand where we come from is all but required to know where we are going. This successful study promises to help us do just that.


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