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Egyptian Mummies and Misreporting

June 2, 2017

A study published in Nature Communications has caused quite a stir in the archaeological and scientific communities. It has also led to quite a bit of misreporting in popular media eager to claim Egyptian civilization as European.

Egyptian panel

The Paper

The study looked at 166 samples of 151 mummies. Of those, 90 mitochondrial genomes and 3 nuclear genomes were presented in the paper (others excluded due to contamination >3%). Their analysis of the samples found that ancient Egyptians were genetically close to ancient peoples of the Middle East and Europe -- specifically, . They also found that current Egyptians differ from ancient Egyptians by an 8% Sub-Saharan component which they attribute to later migrations within the past 1500 years. The mtDNA haplogroups of the three mummies were: M1a, U6a2 and J1d. One of the loci analyzed (SLC24A5) had a variant which contributes to lighter skin pigmentation in two of the three examined samples. The study stops to note that there might be some limitations due to all samples coming from one site over a certain span of time.

In other words, ancient Egyptians are closer to ancient peoples of the Middle East than current Egyptians. At the same time, of all modern populations, those ancient Egyptians are genetically the closest to the current inhabitants of the Middle East.

Reception and Misreporting

It did not take much from the publication of the study to reports about it being plastered all over the popular media. A good number of outlets reported the findings accurately, but an equal number either misunderstood or misrepresented the findings.

DailyMail ScreenshotScreenshot of the Daily Mail article on the topicTake the Daily Mail for example. Their article's title claimed the mummies were "more Turkish and European than African." Aside from the anachronistic use of "Turkish," the study did not show ancient Egyptians were more of anything. Instead, it showed ancient Egyptians clustered with other ancient populations in the region, including Anatolian and Levantine. The second interesting claim was in the subheading: "They found that ancient Egyptians were closely related to European populations." This is highly misleading, as all human populations are closely related to each other in absolute terms. In relative terms, one population might be closer to another than a third population is to either. That said, if we were to arrange the "relatedness" of ancient Egyptians to modern and past populations according to this study' findings, they would be closest to ancient populations in the Middle East, then current populations in the Middle East, then European, and finally African. See the genetic distance chart at the end of this article.

Sky News did not fare much better. They still went with a sensational headline that mirrored the Daily Mail's anachronistic use of "Turkish." They also claimed ancient Egyptians had "European DNA." In reality, ancient Egyptians shared genes with ancient populations, but that does not mean those genes were European in origin, only that a shared ancestor passed them down to both populations. Egyptian panelScreenshot of the Sky News article on the topic

Ultimately, these news outlets were just examples of media that were too eager to claim Egyptian culture as, at least partly, European. The study only supported a close link between ancient populations that were geographically close together in those times, as one might expect. Ultimately if one were curious about which current population most closely resembles ancient Egyptians genetically, one need not look at Europe (or Sub-Saharan Africa), but at modern Egyptians and people of the Levant.

Sky News screenshotGenetic distance to ancient Egyptians showing they are the closest to modern Egyptians and other modern Near Eastern populations. Based on the findings of the 2017 study, supplementary table 4.

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