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Analyzing Mummy Genes: Were Ancient Egyptians closely Related to Middle Easterners?

Analyzing Mummy Genes: Were Ancient Egyptians closely Related to Middle Easterners?

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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)

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.

Scarab bearing the name of the Hyksos pharaoh Apophis. Made of steatite, from the time of the Second Intermediate Period.

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.

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.

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.

Agricultural scenes of threshing, a grain store, harvesting with sickles, digging, tree-cutting and ploughing from the tomb of Nakht, 18th Dynasty Thebes.

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.

Other Implications

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.

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.

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.

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.

Depiction of Noah's ark landing on the mountains of Ararat. ( Public Domain )

Top Image: ‘Ancient Times, Egyptian.’ Source: Public Domain

By Caleb Strom

References

“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

“Ancient Egyptians were closer to Armenians than to Africans; a new genetics study reveals” by admin (2017). People of Ar. http://www.peopleofar.com/2017/06/05/ancient-egyptians-were-closer-to-armenians-than-to-africans-a-new-genetics-study-reveals/

Hofmanová, Zuzana, et al. "Early farmers from across Europe directly descended from Neolithic Aegeans."  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  113.25 (2016): 6886-6891.

“Europe's first farmers came from Turkey: DNA from Anatolian skeletons show farming spread from the region 8,000 years ago” by Richard Gray (2016). Daily Mail . Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3385337/Europe-s-farmers-came-Turkey-DNA-Anatolian-skeletons-farming-spread-region-8-000-years-ago.html#ixzz4pDEwshQl 

Kitchen, Andrew, et al. "Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of Semitic languages identifies an Early Bronze

Age origin of Semitic in the Near East."  Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences  (2009): rspb-2009.

Comments

Charles Bowles's picture

Genetics does not define races of humans, and DNA only establishes where groups of people have resided for long periods of time which is based on their “Genes” developing in various isolated environments.  The other problem with DNA is that people move around a lot on all continents which makes it quite difficult to pinpoint who actually lived where and during what time period.  For example, Senegalese, Nigerians, Ghanaians, Togolese, Malians are all West Africans and I have been reported to have different DNA from all of those African territories.  I’ve been told that I have 6% English and 7% Irish DNA which is differentiated while they are also next door bordering neighbors.  One of the mysteries to me is that how can these countries be reported to have different DNA from each other while the French (Normans), Norwegian Vikings, German Anglo/Saxons etc has resided in all of those countries for many centuries who were not originally from those areas?  Again, all of the DNA differences does not change the race of those white people, same as foreign DNA in Africa does not take anything away from Black Africans, and slightly change their appearance same as Black people throughout the rest of the world.  We have reached a point in history where historical facts cannot be denied, so now we have a new “TRICK” called DNA that tell Black people that they might look Black, but their DNA say they are not.   There are people who say that Black Jarawa’s in the Andaman/Nicobar Islands and the Black Melanesians are not Black and that they are closer to white folk than they are to their own Black race ha ha ha..  Why do so many people stoop so low as to try proving the impossible? Why is it that a pure Black person cannot have a thinner nose, lips and straight hair,while it is often accepted that white people with a LARGE NOSE, Thick Lips,Curly hair and DARKER SKIN than PALE WHITE Nordic people are still white race folks ha ha ha, so why is there a double standard for classifying races according to the white pseudo lying so call scholars? It even gets worse when the ancient BLACK MINOANS and Etruscans who has been shown to have VERY DARK SKIN the color of chocolate milk, and racists will say that they were white folks who stayed in the sun a lot ha ha ha, while their paintings does not show “SUNTAN”, but shows chocolate skin color in most of their paintings, and shows that they dressed identically like the ancient Black Egyptians/Nubians when they arrived to trade their “Minoans”, and even their female companions are shown to look like dark skin West Indies women wearing lare Looped earrings.  The problem here is that the Black Minoans founded the FIRST EUROPEAN CIVILIZATION on the Greek island of Crete and white supremacists will lie through their teeth until their faces turn purple before they accept those facts.  The fact of this story is not about what foreign people came to Egypt/Nubia, but rather, WHAT EUROPEAN CIVILIZATIONS WERE FOUNDED BY BLACK AFRICANS, such as ancient Colchis where the Black founders were the THIRD PEOPLE on earth to practice “circumsicion” after the Ethiopians and Egyptians/Nubians, also the ancient Black civilization of Chaldea, as well as ancient Etruria which was an ancient civilization that preceded ancient Rome, and was later destroyed by them...

Charles Bowles

Charles Bowles's picture

Even if the people who resided in the Anatolia region before the flood spread out to other areas of the earth where “Indigenous People” were already residing for thousands of years it appears that they would have been only a ‘MINORITY” of people entering an already densely human population in all of those areas, including Europe, Asia (so-call midle east) and the African continent which include Egypt/Nubia and all other places.  It would be very wise to say that even if the people varied in human phenotype from the NEW places where they arived, they would surely be absolved into the indigious population without causing any significant phenotype changes within the people of the host territory.  Also, there is no real concrete evidence that verifies the exact phenotype of the people in the Anatolia area who were definitely not of white European origin, and would be an Afro-Asiatic mixed race people who would have blended in with the dominant population where they immigrated..

Charles Bowles

There is a fascinating book about the origin of Noah’s Flood called by that name (Noah’s Flood). It describes the tremendous floods that occurred 7500 years ago around the Black Sea area when the Mediterranean Sea broke through the Bosporus straits and flooded the Black Sea turning it into a salt water sea. This geographical calamity fits extremely well into the narrative mentioned in this article about families having to flee quickly from a major flood that caused the Black Sea to increase dramatically in sea level in a short period of time. Those families left the Anatolia region and spread throughout the world including Europe, Middle East, and North Africa.

I think it is difficult to say that these diverse cultures sharing this myth give the story of Noah validity or that it was a flood that drove them out or floodibg elsewhere that led to them repopulating far flung places (some archaeologists have pointed to the flooding of the black sea as a possible cause of the Noah myth) Another interpretation is that these migrating people may have taken their myths and legends with them and disseminated them throughout these regions wherever they settled which acts as another clue to a shared ancestry. The Noah myth could be far earlier still than the actual migration event.

That is a nice painting of Noah's ark made out of bricks.

The discussion is pretty representative of what I've seen of the origin controversy of the Egyptians. Each poster presents a valid point. I think the nobility must have gone through some changes over the course of thousands of years. Like the very first poster, I am also mostly interested in the earliest mummies rather than the later ones analyzed here. I mean we are talking about the origin of the culture.

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