Personal Genetics Education Project

DNA Evidence Sheds Light on Mystery of Egyptian Mummies

Written by Lauren Tomaselli, pgEd’s Director of Curriculum and Training

DNA testing was used to verify that two ancient Egyptian mummies buried together were half-brothers. The pair, called the Two Brothers, was found in a tomb in 1907, and date from between 1985 B.C. and 1773 B.C.  The discovery that they shared a mother but had different fathers was made by testing two types of DNA from the mummies’ teeth.

Archeologist Konstantina Drousou of the University of Manchester in England says that the result demonstrates the significance of the matrilineal line in ancient Egyptian society. There were hieroglyphic markings on the tomb indicating that the two had the same mother, named Khnum-Aa, but it was unclear if they shared a father, who was unnamed in the tomb.

Drousou and his team analyzed DNA that was taken from the two mummies’ teeth. The researchers specifically looked at the mummies’ Y chromosomes, which typically are only passed on from fathers to sons, and their mitochondrial DNA, which is found in the energy-producing “organs” (called mitochondria) in cells and are generally inherited from an individual’s mother. The test results show that the Two Brothers shared the same maternal lineage, but different paternal lineages.

This news story is an excellent example of the interdisciplinary nature of genetics, and can be used by both history and biology teachers to point out this connection. Historians have uncovered much evidence that women were equal to men in most areas in Egyptian society. Here, the naming of the mother but not fathers suggests that, “Power may have been transferred down the female line rather than simply by a son inheriting [high rank] from his father,” according to Campbell Price, curator of the Egypt and Sudan collections at the Manchester Museum in England. The new genetic evidence lend support to the conclusion drawn from historical and archaeological work.

Learn more about the discovery and historical implications here, and read the scientific paper here.

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