Egypt to Reveal the Results of DNA Testing on King Tut’s Mummy

On Sunday, 31st January, Egypt’s antiquities department made the announcement that they will soon reveal the results of DNA testing conducted on the world’s most famous ancient king, Pharaoh Tutankhamun, which was undertaken to answer lingering mysteries over his lineage. Archaeology chief Zahi Hawass said at a conference that he would announce the results of DNA tests and CAT scans on February 17.

The results of DNA and CAT scans on King Tut’s mummy will be compared to those made of King Amenhotep III, who may have been Tutankamun’s grandfather.

The testing of Tut’s mummy is part of a wider program to check the DNA of hundreds of mummies to determine their family relations and identities. It is hoped that the program will help to determine Tut’s family lineage, something which has long been a source of mystery.

The identity of Tutankamun’s parents is not definitively known, though many experts believe that he is the son of Akhenaten, the 18th Dynasty pharaoh who tried to introduce monotheism to Egypt 3,500 years ago. His mother is believed to be one of Akhenaten’s queens, Kiya. Others, however, suggest that Tut was the son of a lesser known pharaoh that followed Akhenaten.

Tut was one of the final kinds of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty, ruling during a crucial, tumultuous time when Akhenaten’s monotheism ended and powers were returned to the priests of the country’s multiple deities.

The department has announced ambitious plans to conduct DNA tests on Egyptian mummies, including tests on all royal mummies and the two dozen unidentified ones stored at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It is believed that some of the sting could show that some of the royal mummies on display are not who they were thought to be. One of their big goals is to find the mummy of Nefertiti, Akhenaten’s wife legendary for her beauty.

Hawass has long rejected DNA testing be conducted on Egyptian mummies by foreign experts, and just recently allowed such projects to go forth on the condition that they be done only by Egyptians. With funding from the Discovery Channel, a $5 million DNA lab was created at the Egyptian Museum.

In addition, Hawass announced Sunday that a robot would be sent inside the Great Pyramind of Khufu to learn the secrets of its hidden passageways.



Central Europe was repopulated 7,500 years ago

10_palaeogenetik_05Europe’s first farmers replaced their Stone-Age hunter-gatherer forerunners: Analysis of ancient DNA from skeletons suggests that Europe’s first farmers were not the descendants of the people who settled the area after the retreat of the ice sheets. Instead, the early farmers probably migrated into major areas of central and eastern Europe about 7,500 years ago, bringing domesticated plants and animals with them, says Barbara Bramanti from Mainz University in Germany and colleagues. The researchers analyzed DNA from hunter-gatherer and early farmer burials, and compared those to each other and to the DNA of modern Europeans. They conclude that there is little evidence of a direct genetic link between the hunter-gatherers and the early farmers, and 82 percent of the types of mtDNA found in the hunter-gatherers are relatively rare in central Europeans today.

For more than a century archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists, and more recently, geneticists have argued about who were the ancestors of Europeans living today. We know that people lived in Europe before and after the last big ice age and managed to survive by hunting and gathering. We also know that farming spread into Europe from the Near East over the last 9,000 years, thereby increasing the amount of food that can be produced by as much as 100-fold. But the extent to which modern Europeans are descended from either of those two groups has eluded scientists despite many attempts to answer this question.

10_anthropologie_DNA_01Now, a team from Mainz University in Germany together with researchers from University College London and Cambridge have found that the first farmers in central and northern Europe could not have been the descendents of the hunter-gatherers that came before them. But what is even more surprising, they also found that modern Europeans could not be solely the descendents of the hunter-gatherers or the first farmers, and are unlikely to be a mixture of just those two groups. “This is really odd,” said Professor Mark Thomas, population geneticist at University College London and co-author on the study. “For more than a century the debate has centered around how much hunter-gatherer, how much early farmer? But now that: For the first time, we are able to look directly at the genes of these Stone Age Europeans. And what we find is that some DNA types just aren’t there, despite being common in Europeans today.”

Humans arrived in Europe 45,000 years ago and replaced the Neandertals. From that period on, European hunter-gatherers experienced lots of climatic changes including the last Ice Age. After the end of the Ice Age some 11,000 years ago, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle survived for a couple of thousand years but then was gradually replaced by agriculture. The question is whether this change in lifestyle from hunter-gatherer to farmer was brought to Europe by 10_anthropologie_DNA_02new people or whether only the idea of farming spread. The new results from the Mainz team seem to solve much of this long-standing debate. “Our analysis shows that there is no direct continuity between hunter-gatherers and farmers in Central Europe,” says Professor Joachim Burger from Mainz University. “As the hunter-gatherers were there first, the farmers must have immigrated into the area.” The study identifies the Carpathian Basin as the origin for early Central European farmers. “It seems that farmers of the Linearbandkeramik culture immigrated from there 7,500 years ago into Central Europe, initially without mixing with local hunter gatherers.” Barbara Bramanti, first author of the study adds: “This is surprising, because there were cultural contacts between the locals and the immigrants, but, it appears, no genetic exchange of women.”

The new study confirms what Joachim Burger’s team showed in 2005, i.e., that the first farmers were not the direct ancestors of the modern European. Burger says: “We are still searching for those remaining components of modern European ancestry. Hunter-gatherers and early farmers alone are not enough. But new ancient DNA data from later periods in European prehistory may shed light on this in the future.”


Arbeitsgruppe Palaeogenetik Institut für Anthropologie Mainz

All images © Joachim Burger

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Neanderthal genome unravelled

neanderthalScientists have unravelled the genetic make-up of the Neanderthal, the long-faced, barrel-chested relative of modern humans.

Anthropologists analysed more than a billion fragments of ancient DNA plucked from three Croatian fossils to reconstruct a first draft of the Neanderthal genome.

The extraordinary feat gives scientists an unprecedented opportunity to clarify the evolutionary relationship between humans and Neanderthals that may ultimately shed light on the great mystery of how we became the most formidable species on the planet.

Neanderthals were the closest relatives of modern living humans. They lived in Europe and Asia until they became extinct around 30,000 years ago. The reason they died out is not clear, but likely factors are dramatic swings in the climate that affected the availability of food, and competition with early humans.

By comparing the genomes of modern humans with Neanderthals and chimps, scientists hope to unravel the genetic differences that define what it is to be human.

The Neanderthal genome was built up from strands of DNA, most of which came from a 38,000-year-old fossilised leg bone unearthed in a cave in Vindija, Croatia. Other material came from older remains dating back 70,000 years. Together, the fragments make up more than 60% of the Neanderthal genome.

Svante Pääbo, who led the project at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Leipzig, Germany, said the team would spend the rest of the year analysing the DNA. They will focus on genes linked to modern human evolution, such as FOXP2, which is involved in speech and language.

The draft genome was announced at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago.

Two years ago, the same group used the ancient DNA to pinpoint the moment, about 500,000 years ago, when modern humans split from Neanderthals.

The analysis should clear up once and for all the ongoing debate as to whether Neanderthals and modern humans continued to mate with each other after separating along the path of evolution.

Remains of Neanderthals dating back to 400,000 years ago suggest they were proficient at crafting basic tools and weapons and buried their dead. The last Neanderthals died out shortly after Homo sapiens migrated to Europe and settled.

Neanderthals were stocky and well-adapted to a cold climate, with brains that were on average larger than those of modern humans. Some fossil evidence suggests they were occasionally cannibalistic, though they more commonly hunted large animals including horses and mammoths.