Analyzing Mummy Genes: Were Ancient Egyptians closely Related to Middle Easterners?
Egypt has been thought of by many as a quintessentially African civilization. There is, however, evidence that the ancient Egyptians may have been less African than modern Egyptians, at least genetically. Recent genetic studies have shown that the people of ancient Egypt had ties to ancient Near Eastern populations such as Armenians. This is also consistent with the idea of a large migration out of the Middle East to settle parts of North Africa and Europe and mingle with local populations in those areas.
Modern Egyptians have a lot of genetic and cultural ties to Sub-Saharan Africa. It has long been believed by archaeologists that the Egyptian civilization grew from villages developing along the Nile which were similar to people farther south. So far, genetic studies of modern Egyptians as well as archaeological research have confirmed this. Studies of the ancient Egyptian mummies, however, tell a slightly more complex story.
Egyptian Mummy in Laboratory (Bigstock)
Checking the Genes of Egyptian Mummies
In a recent study, genetic samples were taken from at least 90 mummies. What geneticists working alongside archaeologists found was that the mummies had closer genetic connections to the Middle East, specifically the Levant and Anatolia. This is an interesting find since it suggests that modern Egyptians are more African than ancient Egyptians.
One possible explanation for more genetic similarities between ancient Egyptians and Middle Eastern populations such as Syrians or Armenians would be the Hyksos. The Hyksos were a Middle Eastern people who occupied the Nile delta sometime before 1650 BC and came to rule Egypt until they were ousted by a native dynasty.
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Scarab bearing the name of the Hyksos pharaoh Apophis. Made of steatite, from the time of the Second Intermediate Period. (Keith Schengili-Roberts/ CC BY SA 2.5 )
This explanation fits well with the fact that it is the mummified remains of Egyptian nobles and royalty who have the Middle Eastern lineage, although it is also true that commoners were typically not mummified - so we don’t have their remains from which to extract genetic material to test the “Hyksos” hypothesis. In addition to many of them being Hyksos, there was probably intermarriage between the Hyksos and the native nobility.
One problem with this suggestion is that most of the mummies tested date to between 1380 BC and 425 AD, well after the Hyksos were driven out of Egypt (around 1550 BC). It is possible of course that the Egyptian pharaohs continued to be of at least partly Hyksos lineage even after the original Hyksos were expelled.
Hyksos chariot painting. ( Public Domain )
A Controversial Connection
One reason that this connection between ancient Egypt, the Levant, and Anatolia might be controversial is that many Africans take pride in ancient Egypt being an African civilization. The suggestion that it might have had more ties to the Middle East might appear, to some, to once again deny the virtues of African civilizations by saying that ancient Egypt was another Middle Eastern civilization and not truly African.
Of course, even if this is true and ancient Egypt was more Middle Eastern than African, Africa still has had many unambiguously indigenous civilizations including Mali, Great Zimbabwe, Aksum, the Swahili city-states, and Benin to name just a few. Africa still has a civilizational legacy without ancient Egypt.
The Aksum Obelisk, returned to Aksum, Ethiopia. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Middle Eastern Influence
Interestingly, this evidence may hint at a larger pattern that suggests a great movement of people out of the Middle East beginning in the Neolithic. In 2016, genetic evidence was found that Europeans are at least partially descended from farmers who had migrated into Europe from Anatolia perhaps 8,000 years ago.
It is possible that just as farmers migrated from the Middle East into Europe, they may have also migrated into Egypt and mingled with the native African populations to create the Egyptian culture. This Middle Eastern influence on the Nile valley is supported by the fact that Middle Eastern domesticates such as wheat, barley, sheep, and goats were all prevalent in ancient Egypt.
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Agricultural scenes of threshing, a grain store, harvesting with sickles, digging, tree-cutting and ploughing from the tomb of Nakht, 18th Dynasty Thebes. ( Public Domain )