Science and Tech


Mummy DNA Might Help End A Decades-Old Debate

For years, researchers have argued if ancient Egyptians resembled modern Arabs or if they looked more like sub-Saharan Africans.
Posted at 9:18 AM, Jun 03, 2017

Ancient Egypt sat at the crossroads of several major civilizations from Africa, Asia and Europe. This gave it a complex demographic history — and puts it at the center of a heated debate.

For years, researchers have debated what racial category best fits the ancient Egyptians: whether they were lighter-skinned and resembled modern Arabs and near-Easterners, or whether they were darker-skinned and looked more like sub-Saharan Africans.

Some black heritage groups say ancient Egyptians were black. They cite Greek and Latin texts that describe ancient Egyptians as having dark skin and textured hair. They also point to some paintings and sculptures that seem to show Egyptians as having more features from the southern region of Africa.

But some classical scholars and egyptologists disagree, pointing to ancient Egyptian art that depicts them as having reddish or yellow skin and more Arabic features.

Now, scientists hope advances in DNA sequencing will give them more clues in the debate.

In a recent study, researchers analyzed the genetic composition of Egyptian mummies. Their results suggest ancient Egyptians shared their ancestry with near-easterners: people from Western Asia and the Middle East.

But the findings aren't definitive. Similar studies show the ancient Egyptian population was even more complex than previously thought.

And so far, these tests have only mapped a fraction of the entire ancient Egyptian genome — far less than what would be required to definitively determine racial history. For that, researchers say they'll need DNA sequencing to get even better.