Verena Schuenemann at the Palaeogenetics Laboratory, University of Tuebingen. (credit: Johannes Krause)

In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, – Isaiah 19:23-24 (ESV)

Archaeologist’s efforts and discoveries have shown us many things about ancient Egypt; Including architecture, records of wars and conquests, treatment of the dead, spiritual beliefs and more. We have shared many discoveries with you that connect to, and sometimes confirm, the biblical account.

However, until recently scientists had not been able to know for certain what the ancestry of Egyptian people looked like. Knowledge of Egypt’s population history was gleaned largely from literary sources as well as archaeological evidence. But questions still remained. Were the ancient Egyptians of African descent or of Near East descent?

Unlike very cold climates that would preserve soft tissue; the hot climate of Egypt combined with the embalming process practiced by ancient Egyptians destroyed most of the DNA… But there is good news!

A study, recently published in Nature Communications, discusses the recent findings of research led by Johannes Krause from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.

There had been other studies done in the past, but they were burdened with concerns of contamination. As noted in the International Business Times, this new study was the first time that modern sequencing techniques and authenticity tests were used to ensure ancient origins. This also confirms that “mummies are a valid genetic source to study ancient human history.”

Krause worked with mummies from the Pre-Ptolemaic and Roman times found at the Abusir-elMeleq site near Cairo. They studied the bones and teeth, rather than soft tissue for worry that it could still contain preservatives from the embalming process. The samples spanned 1,300 years of ancient Egyptian history (from 1388 BC – 426 AD). The study states that they examined 90 ancient mitochondrial DNA strands. These only carried a few genes and did not paint a full picture. However, they were able to retrieve the DNA of three samples that contained complete genomes.

Map of Egypt depicting the location of the archaeological site Abusir-el Meleq (orange X) and the location of the modern Egyptian samples (orange circles) (credit: design of the graphic by Annette Günzel).

As noted by CBC News, the samples “were more closely related to populations from a geographic locations historically referred to as the Near East, or southwest Asia.” These findings were surprising as it had been previously thought that Egyptian people were descended from African lines, but samples showed almost zero sub-Saharan African ancestry.

What scientist now know is that while modern Egyptians (in the last 1,500 years) have had an increase of 10-15% in sub-Saharan African ancestry… ancient populations have a different story to tell.

Egyptian Mummy (Credit: David Rohl, ©2012)

Another interesting conclusion that was drawn as a result of the study is that even though there was an influx of foreign rulers, Krause said he was surprised at how stable the genetic material seemed to be over this period. MSN notes that, “The scientists were particularly interested in the change in ruling class at the turn of the first millennium. First came the Hellenistic dynasty, in the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s conquests, from 332 BC to 30 BC, and then Roman rule from 30 BC to about AD 400. And yet the genetics of the Abusir el-Meleq community appeared to be unperturbed by shifting politics.”

In the published paper, the researchers did note that, “all our genetic data were obtained from a single site in Middle Egypt and may not be representative for all of ancient Egypt.” They note that in the south, the sub-saharan African influence may have been stronger.

With new answers, new questions also arise. Researchers acknowledge that it is not clear when or how the sub-saharan African influence was introduced, leading to what we see in more modern Egyptian DNA. or the origin of the Egyptians. They are hopeful that this technique will be used in the future on other mummies to further study open gaps in information.

This scientific evidence recalls the account in Genesis chapter 10 that tells of the sons of Noah and the nations that came from them in the following centuries as they spread across the lands.

These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Sons were born to them after the flood. The sons of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras. The sons of Gomer: Ashkenaz, Riphath, and Togarmah. The sons of Javan: Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim. From these the coastland peoples spread in their lands, each with his own language, by their clans, in their nations. The sons of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. – Genesis 10:1-6 (ESV)

The consistency of the DNA results from a nearly 1000-year timespan may also be one step toward confirming David Rohl’s intriguing proposal that prior to the dynastic period of Egypt’s history, the descendants of Ham (in the line of Egypt / Mizraim), who originated in Mesopotamia, conquered the Nile Valley and eventually set up Egypt’s first dynasties.The clue to how this happened comes from pictures of boats drawn on rock faces in the normally dry river beds (or wadis) of Egypt’s deserts!

A high-prowed ship from Egypt’s eastern desert. (credit: David Rohl)

The evidence points to the invaders boarding ships and sailing south before pulling their vessels from the Red Sea across Egypt’s eastern desert to access the Nile River. In 1998-99, Rohl, as the leader of the Eastern Desert Survey, headed into the Wadi Hammamat, which was used as the main desert route from the Nile Valley to the Red Sea. He was following up on previous trips he had made in an attempt to rediscover the finds of German explorer, Hans Winkler. Winkler had recorded graffiti that included depictions of over 100 desert boats in the rock cliffs surrounding the Wadi Hammamat and its side channels in 1936-37.

Some of the ship drawings may depict gods or chieftain priest figures wearing two tall plumes, a motif instituted by Egyptian pharaohs. (credit: David Rohl)

The mission was successful in finding rock carvings that depict an epic journey by these foreign invaders in reed boats that had as many as 60-70 oarsmen. The scenes also include long lines of men hauling the ships with ropes across land, as chieftains directed from the decks. Everything from the construction of the ships to the style of dress to the weapons used, fits a Mesopotamian origin. Evidence in the Nile valley suggests that their surprise attack was successful and that these followers of Horus become the ruling class of Egypt’s first dynasties. This would help explain the sudden appearance of complex culture in Egypt at this time. More on this idea and the remarkable finds that support it can be found in two of David Rohl’s books; Legend and The Lost Testament.

While the recent DNA tests are consistent with this idea, further tests will need to be conducted on Egypt’s earliest pharaohs in order to throw more light on the movements of these ancient groups.