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)
It is possible that in addition to technologies and ideas, there was also a movement of people from the Middle East into the Nile valley. Although this Middle Eastern genetic influence might be mainly restricted to Egyptian nobility, this genetic pattern could also be evidence of a hypothetical migration from the Near East during the Neolithic.
A movement of people out of Anatolia and the Levant into Africa and Europe has implications for the ancient Near Eastern traditions which teach that humanity originated from the Middle East. The most well-known tradition that teaches this would be the Judeo-Christian tradition, though Islam also believes it. In the Bible, the descendants of Noah settled the world known to the ancient Hebrews after the flood: The Middle East, North Africa, and the Eastern Mediterranean. The ancient Hebrews believed that all the nations known to them, the Greeks, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, and the Hittites among others, descended from Noah and his sons.
Noah and his companions give thanks after the flood. By Domenico Morelli. (Public Domain)
Defense of the reality of the flood of Noah, even a local one which only flooded the Mesopotamian flood plain, is a subject for a different article, but one question that can be considered in this article is whether there is evidence for the idea that the Mediterranean and Ancient Near Eastern worlds were settled by full, or partial, descendants of a figure like Noah.
Both Ancient Egypt and Europe appear to have genetic ties to Anatolia, while Ancient Egypt also has genetic ties to the Levant, according to current findings. Anatolia and the Levant are both proposed regions from where Noah’s descendants are said to have set out to repopulate the earth.
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The fact that this genetic connection to Anatolia and the Levant exists for populations in Europe and North Africa, specifically Egypt, does not by itself prove that modern Europeans or ancient Egyptians are descended from survivors of a great flood which devastated those parts of the Middle East. It is, however, consistent with the idea.
Trade in ancient Egypt. (CC BY SA 3.0)
It is also interesting to note that the legend of a great flood and a single man’s family repopulating the earth is shared by many cultures in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean, including Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and the Levant. Could these shared stories be evidence of a shared history and shared ancestry between these relatively disparate people in the Near East, North Africa, and Europe?
The evidence for now still needs more analysis, but it does suggest that the Biblical authors might have been onto something after all when they talked about the world being populated by a family that set out from the Mountains of Ararat in Anatolia. Most Middle Easterners, Europeans, and some North Africans such as the ancient Egyptians may have at least partially descended from a people that once lived there.
Depiction of Noah's ark landing on the mountains of Ararat. (Public Domain)
Top Image: ‘Ancient Times, Egyptian.’ Source: Public Domain
By Caleb Strom
“Mummy DNA unravels ancient Egyptians’ ancestry” by Tracy Watson (2017). Nature. Available at: https://www.nature.com/news/mummy-dna-unravels-ancient-egyptians-ancestry-1.22069
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