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That's a Wrap: Studies of Mummy DNA Reveals Whether Egyptians are Black or White

Updated: Jun 14, 2019

By Caroline Hana

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Edge of Tomorrow, The Hunger Games, and The Last Airbender. What do all these big box office movies have in common? Whitewashing. A common Hollywood practice where historic non-white roles are casted to white actors. More specifically in the movie “Exodus: Gods and Kings” watchers were enraged when an overwhelming part of the cast was white actors, against claims that ancient Egyptians were black. But what really is the race of Egyptians?

In a 2017 genetic study published in Nature Communications by Schuenemann et al., scientists took samples from 151 mummies in northern Egypt Abusir el-Meleq to complete a DNA sequencing analysis. Using DNA capture techniques for human mitochondrial DNA and for 1.24 million genomic SNPS in combination with Illumina sequencing, scientists tested the mitochondrial DNA of 90 mummies from Abusir el-Meleq. These tests indicated a great affinity for Middle Eastern populations, showing that ancient Egyptians were most closely related to populations from Levant and Anatolia, modern day Syria and Turkey respectively . Additionally, the studies showed that these ancient populations shared a higher resemblance to south-eastern Europeans than to sub-Saharan Africans.

However, in an study published in Nature communications (2017) revealed if we look at modern populations of Egyptians, 8% of their genome is shared with central Africans, far more than ancient ones.

How did this happen?

This influx of Sub-Saharan genes only occurred within the last 1,500 years and could be attributed to the trans-Saharan slave trade or just from regular, long distance trade between the two regions by the Nile. Egypt, specifically northern Egypt, over the span of antiquity was conquered many times including by Alexander the Great, the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and more. Researchers wanted to know if these constant waves of invaders caused any major genetic changes in the populace over time. Yet it was indicated that the genetics of the population did not shift dramatically in the last 1300 years during a period of foreign conquest. The study's authors also cautioned that the mummies may be unrepresentative of the Ancient Egyptian population as a whole, since they were recovered from the northern part of Egypt,(closer to foreign populations) and they only dated from the late New Kingdom to the Roman Period.

Further testing will likely contribute much knowledge to our understanding of the ancient Egyptians, helping to fill in the gaps in humanity’s collective memory. Until conclusive results though, the debate will still stand and people will continue to support their hypotheses. Whether it is “Remember the Time” By Michael Jackson or Night at the Smithsonian, Egyptian culture continues to thrive in pop culture around us by one’s own interpretation.

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