Two ancient 4,000 year-old Egyptian mummies who were thought to be brothers made news yesterday when scientists at the University of Manchester, England discovered that while they had the same mother, they had different fathers.

Story of the Two Brothers

Deir Rifeh village, Egypt
The location of Deir Rifeh village, Egypt where the mummies were discovered in 1907

Specifically, Dr Konstantina Drosou of the University of Manchester used mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the mother and Y chromosome DNA from the father to do the DNA analysis. The mummified now certified half-brothers had DNA extracted from their teeth and sequenced, confirming a maternal relationship, but the Y chromosome DNA analysis suggested they were not of the same father.

These two mummies, identified as Khnum-nakht and Nakht-ankh, were priests in ancient Egypt, and according to hieroglyphic inscriptions on their sarcophagi were the sons of a local governor. Discovered by British archaeologist Flinders Petrie in 1907 at the village of Deir Rifeh, Egypt and brought to Manchester in 1908, early examination of their skeletal morphologies suggested they may not actually be related, which was confirmed today using modern DNA testing technology. Nevertheless, neither the scientists nor archeologists can provide a reason as to why these two mummies buried as bothers turn out to be only half-related.

Mummies are by definition human or animal corpses intentionally or incidentally preserved with intact skins and organs as a result of natural preservation or a feature of ancient cultures.

There are many ancient mummies, both human and animal, discovered in every continent. Human mummies from old Egypt are the most well-known, but there are over one million animal mummies discovered in Egypt, mostly cats and sacred ibis, a wading bird found in Sub-Saharan Africa and Iraq, dating back to 250 BC. Even older are the mummies found at Spirit Cave in  Fallon, Nevada in North America carbon dated at 9,400 years old.

Of these, a few of these ancient cultural artefacts have had their DNA sequenced. Studies of DNA recovered from ancient specimens such as mummified humans are characterised by low-quality DNA where the DNA material preserved is dependent on time, temperature, and humidity. It is known that mitochondrial DNA is preserved better than nuclear DNA.

Of these two types of DNA, mitochondrial DNA is the more useful identification tool for tracking ancestry through females because the sequence of mitochondrial DNA is usually preserved from parent to offspring, whereas nuclear DNA genes inherited from both parents are rearranged in the process.

Let us look at these hundreds of years old mummies and human remains that have had their ancient DNA tested.

Paglicci 23 (28,000 years old)

Paglicci Cave Items at the Rignano Garganico Museum, Apulia, South Italy
Paglicci Cave Items at the Rignano Garganico Museum, Apulia, South Italy (Source: Trip Advisor)

Paglicci 23 is the name given to the ancient human fragments – tibia, skulls, jaw and maxilla – discovered in 2003 by Italian paleoanthropologist Francesco Mallegni in the Paglicci Cave in Apulia, Italy. Carbon dating put the specimens at 28,000 years old and were thought to be from a Cro-Magnon or European early modern humans that lived in the European Upper Paleolithic period.

According to Anthropology.net, mitochondrial DNA analysis of the Paglicci 23 bone fragments revealed significant difference with Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA. The Cro-Magnoid are thought to be closely related to modern Europeans. The sequenced mitochondrial genome thus suggests that the Neanderthal population is a distinct species from the Cro-Magnon and homo sapiens.

Cheddar Man (9,000 years old)

Children exploring Gough's Cave where the Cheddar Man was found
Children exploring Gough’s Cave where the Cheddar Man was found (Source: Cheddar Gorge & Caves)

Discovered through excavation in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England in 1903, the Cheddar Man is a 9,000-year-old fossil of a male human carbon dated to the Mesolithic period. Estimated to live around 7150 BC, it is also the oldest known complete human skeletal remains discovered in Britain.

In 1996, Bryan Sykes, a professor of Human Genetics at Oxford University extracted DNA from the molars of the Cheddar Man, sequencing the mitochondrial DNA and compared it to that of a 12,000-year-old tooth specimen similarly found at Gough’s Cave. The analysis showed that both specimens have mitochondrial DNA belonging to the same haplogroup present in other Mesolithic human fragments.

The professor went one step further by sequencing mitochondrial DNA from 20 living residents of the Cheddar village and comparing to the sequence of the Cheddar Man, and two people’s mitochondrial DNA were matched to the Cheddar Man’s.

One of them is Adrian Targett, a history teacher at Cheddar’s King of Wessex Upper School, who have been living in the same area for his whole life, perhaps suggesting that he and his 9,000-year-old Mesolithic ancestor had lived here for generations. He has a shared ancestry with the Cheddar Man through his maternal line. However, there had been disputes from other experts that the results may have been contaminated by modern human DNA.

The actual specimen is now kept at the Natural History Museum in London. A replica can be viewed at the Cheddar Show Caves museum at Somerset where the Cheddar Man was originally found.

Usimare Ramesses III and Pentawer (3,200 years old)

Valley of the Kings, Luxor, Egypt
Valley of the Kings, Luxor, Egypt (Source: WikiTravel)

Usimare Ramesses III is the second Pharaoh of the Twentieth Dynasty (20th Dynasty) reigning from 1186 to 1155 BC. Discovered in 1886 by antiquarians at the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt, the mummy of Ramesses III became the basis of Hollywood’s Egyptian Mummy. Pentawer was a son of Ramesses III and a secondary wife, Tiye.

In 2012, an analysis of nuclear DNA extracted from the mummies of Ramesses III and his son, Pentawer, determined that their Y chromosomes belonged to a haplogroup common among contemporary Sub-Saharan Africans. This study suggests that the Pharaoh and his son were African blacks.

Pharaoh Ramesses III was eventually assassinated by Tiye and Pentawer. Although Egypt began to fall politically and economically during his reign, Ramesses III was known to donate lands and gold statues generously towards the constructions of temples at various Egyptian cities including Piramesse, Heliopolis, and Memphis, as well as cities in Nubia and Syria.

Tjuyu and Yuya (3,390 years old)

The Temple of Hatshepsut at the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes in Luxor, Egypt
The Temple of Hatshepsut at the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes in Luxor, Egypt (Source: Paul Mannix at Flickr)

This is a three millennia romantic story of the Egyptian 18th Dynasty. Tjuyu (Thuya) and Yuya were wife and husband mummies buried at private tombs at the Valley of the Kings in Thebes, Egypt, where they were discovered by British Egyptologist James Quiell in 1905. Tjuyu was a noblewoman and great grandmother of the famous Tutankhamun, while Yuya was a powerful courtier and key adviser of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III during the Eighteenth Dynasty of Ancient Egypt. Tiye, the daughter of Tjuyu and Yuya, was the Great Royal Wife of Amenhotep III.

DNA analysis of the mummified remains of Tjuyu (Thuya) revealed that it is Sub-Saharan African. Her gene is one of the prominent autosomal ancestry markers in the Royal Egyptian families of the New Kingdom. Meanwhile, DNA test of her husband, Yuya by Egyptian archaeologist Dr. Zahi Hawass seems to indicate that Yuya and Amenhotep III were related, possible an uncle to the Pharaoh. Yuya is further thought to be of Hebrew origin but this is not clear.

Mummy Juanita / Momia Juanita (500 years old)

Mount Ampato, Peru where the Ice Maiden was discovered
Mount Ampato, Peru where the Ice Maiden was discovered

Mummy Juanita or Momia Juanita in Spanish, and variously known as the “Inca” Ice Maiden and Lady of Ampato, is the naturally mummified frozen remains of a girl believed to have lived between 1450 and 1480 in the Incan Empire. The mummy was discovered in 1995 by American anthropologist Johan Reinhard and Peruvian Miguel Zárateon on Mount Ampato in southern Peru in well-preserved condition.

Genetic analysis of Momia Juanita showed that she was related to people from the Andes. Mitochondrial DNA sequencing further linked her gene to one of the Native American gene groups, while also linking her to ancient groups of people originally from the Korea peninsula and the island of Taiwan, thus supporting the idea that Native American may have link to natives from the Pacific.

Young Man of Byrsa (2,500 years old)

Archaeological ruins of the ancient Phoenician harbour city of Carthage, Tunisia
Archaeological ruins of the ancient Phoenician harbour city of Carthage, Tunisia (Source: Christian Manhart at English Wikipedia and UNESCO)

Byrsa is the name of a walled citadel that once stood over the ancient Phoenician port city of Carthage in present day Tunisia, North Africa. The Young Man of Brysa is an ancient Carthaginian whose remains were excavated in 1994 from a 2,500-year-old Punic crypt in Brysa Hill where the citadel once stood. The person was thought to have lived around the 6th century BC.

Genetic analysis of his remains linked the Young Man of Brysa to the Iberian peninsula, suggesting an early gene flow from Europe to the Maghreb region. Scientists from Lebanon, Tunisia, France and New Zealand sequenced the complete mitochondrial genome of the specimen, also known as Ariche, and specifically linked the ancient Carthaginian to a modern day individual from Portugal on the Iberian Peninsula.

Tiye and Amenhotep III (3,370 years old)

The Great Hypostyle Hall within the Karnak temple complex in the Precinct of Amon-Re, Luxor, Egypt
The Great Hypostyle Hall within the Karnak temple complex in the Precinct of Amon-Re, Luxor, Egypt (Source: Kurohito at English Wikipedia)

Tiye was the Queen or Great Royal Wife of the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III, mother of the tenth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty Akhenaten and grandmother of pharaoh Tutankhamun. Amonhotep III, also called Amonhotep the Magnificent, was an Eighteenth Dynasty pharaoh who ruled from 1391 to 1353 BC or some 3,370 years ago. As mentioned above, Tiye was the daughter of Tjuyu and Yuya, while genetic analysis showed that Amonhotep III and Yuya could be blood-related.

The mummies of Tiye and Amonhotep III was discovered in 1898 by French Egyptologist Victor Loret at the East Valley of the Kings. Her mummified remains were discovered with several other mummies in the same chamber. DNA tests by Dr Zahi Hawass of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities later identified he remains known as the Elder Lady as Tiye, and linked her to Akhenaten and Tutankhamun.

Tutankhamun (3,340 years old)

Mummification Museum in Luxor, Egypt
Mummification Museum in Luxor, Egypt (Source: Memphis Tours)

Perhaps the most famous mummy of all, affectionately known as King Tut, or officially Tutankhamun, was an Eighteenth Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh around 1332 to 1323 BC during the period of the New Kingdom. Tutankhamun’s original name was Tutankhaten, and his mummified remains was discovered by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922 at the Valley of the Kings. Tutankhamun ascended to the throne at the young age of nine or ten, and reigned for around nine years.

Analysis of Tutankhamun’s DNA and other ancient Egyptian mummies have confirmed that King Tut’s father was the mummy found in the same chamber as Tiye and Amonhotep III, thought to be Akhenaten, and the mummy known as The Younger Lady, name unknown, found in the same chamber, was the mother.

Genetic analysis of Tutankhamun’s mummy further revealed genes of multiple strains of the mosquito-borne parasites that cause malaria. Scientists suggested that this may have weakened the young pharaoh’s immune system.

The Two Women Mummies of Tomb KV21 (3,340 years old)

Luxor Temple on the east bank of the Nile River in Luxor (ancient Thebes)
Luxor Temple on the east bank of the Nile River in Luxor (ancient Thebes) (Source: Ad Meskens at English Wikipedia)

Discovered in 1817 by prolific Italian explorer and pioneer authority of Egyptian antiquities Giovanni Battista Belzoni is Tomb KV21 at the East Valley of the Kings in Egypt. This tomb is also believed to be the burial site of Ankhesenamun, the only wife of Tutankhamun.

Within the burial site The Great Belzoni uncovered two female ancient mummified remains. The two women are believed to be queens of the Eighteenth Egyptian Dynasty of Egypt during the New Kingdom, the time of pharaohs Amonhotep III, Akhenaten, and Tutankhamun.

It was speculated that the two mummies belonged to Nefertiti, the wife of Akhenaten, and their daughter, Ankhesenamun. The 2010 genetic analysis of DNA extracted from the mummies of the two women by Dr Zahi Hawass of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities and geneticist Carsten Pusch linked one of the mummies to be the biological mother of the two foetus mummies found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. However, the experts were unable to conclusively identified the mummy to be Ankhesenamun, neither could they identify the one beside it to be Nefertiti.

The Twin Foetus Mummies in Tutankhamun’s Tomb (3,340 years old)

View of the new Corniche in Luxor, Egypt
View of the new Corniche in Luxor, Egypt (Source: Marc Ryckaert (MJJR) at  English Wikipedia)

The discovery of Tutankhamun burial chamber in 1922 was great news for Egyptologists and became a media sensation. But within the teenage pharaoh’s tomb lies another secret, the mummies of two foetus believed to be the twin stillborns of King Tut and his queen Ankhesenamun. The foetus mummies were discovered in the tomb’s treasury, the only side-room accessible by an unblocked doorway.

Analysis of genetic material extracted from the two foetus mummies confirmed that their biological mother was one of the two women mummies found in tomb KV21. According to Professor Robert Connolly of the Department of Human Anatomy and Cell Biology at the University of Liverpool, the two foetuses are believed to be from a single pregnancy of Tutankhamun’s wife Ankhesenamun. The experts estimated one of the foetuses was five months in gestational age at about 30 centimetres (11.8 inches) in height while the other was seven to nine months in gestational age at 38.5 centimetres (15.16 inches).

As we have seen, modern genetic analysis and scientific techniques have shed new light on ancient mummies and human remains. We now know more about their links to contemporary human populations, while solving ancient mysteries hidden in these cryptic burial chambers.

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