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Testing the DNA of Egyptian Mummies

On August 6, 2008, Zahi Hawass, head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, announced that Egyptian scientists were going to test the DNA of two mummified stillborn infants found in King Tut's tomb. He said that DNA samples taken from the fetuses "will be compared to each other, along with those of the mummy of King Tutankhamun."

This was a wonderful announcement from Zahi Hawass, and the results of the testing revealed that Tutankhamun was "most likely" the father of the two fetuses. But such breakthroughs were rare.

In 2007, DNA testing was done on the purported mummy of Queen Hatshepsut. This was announced widely announced and heralded in a Discovery Channel documentary entitled "Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen." What's more, the DNA testing would take place in a Discovery Channel-funded DNA lab. But read the first part of a Washington Post article (published December 22, 2007) in which the reporter criticized what happened: 

 

Months after Egypt boldly announced that archaeologists had identified a mummy as the most powerful queen of her time, scientists in a museum basement are still analyzing DNA from the bald, 3,500-year-old corpse to try to back up the claim aired on TV. Progress is slow. So far, results indicate the linen-wrapped mummy is most likely, but not conclusively, the female pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut, who ruled for 20 years in the 15th century B.C. Running its own ancient-DNA lab is a major step forward for Egypt, which for decades has seen foreigners take most of the credit for major discoveries here. It's time Egyptian scientists took charge, said Zahi Hawass, Egypt's antiquities chief who spearheaded the quest to find Hatshepsut and build the lab. "Egyptology, for the last 200 years, it has been led by foreigners." But the Hatshepsut discovery also highlights the struggle to back up recent spectacular findings in Egypt, including the unearthing of ancient tombs and mummies, investigations into how King Tut died, and even the discovery in the Siwa oasis of possibly the world's oldest human footprint. So far, the science shown in the Discovery Channel's "Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen" has not been published in a reputable peer-reviewed scientific journal--the gold standard of scientific research worldwide...

 

And in another article written by the Associated Press in June 2008, the writer discussed the promise of another DNA test, this one on a possible King Thutmose I:

 

Egypt plans to conduct a DNA test on a 3,500-year-old mummy to determine if it is King Thutmose I, one of the most important pharaohs, the country's chief archaeologist said Thursday. Zahi Hawass, Egypt's antiquities chief, said the DNA test and an X-ray will be carried out on a mummy found at the site of ancient Thebes on the west bank of the Nile, what is today Luxor's Valley of the Kings, the Middle East News Agency reported. Hawass said a mummy on display in the Egyptian Museum that was purported for many years to be Thutmose I was not actually the ancient ruler's remains. Thutmose I was the third pharaoh of Egypt's 18th dynasty of pharaohs. His reign is generally dated from 1506 to 1493 B.C. He was succeeded by his son Thutmose II, who in turn was succeeded by Thutmose II's sister, Hatshepsut, ancient Egypt's most powerful female pharaoh. Egypt has acquired a $5 million DNA lab, funded by the Discovery Channel, which has become a centerpiece of an ambitious plan to identify mummies and re-examine the royal mummy collection. The best way to obtain accurate results is from the DNA found in a cell's nucleus because it contains information from both parents. But mummy DNA is usually so deteriorated that the chances of finding usable nuclear DNA are slim. Hawass did not say what the mummy's DNA will be compared to in the attempt to identify it. Last year, Egypt started a DNA test on a female mummy to determine whether it is Queen Hatshepsut. The results were never made public. There is some secrecy surrounding Egypt's DNA testing of mummies....

 

Why the reluctance to share the results? Why the unwillingness to publish? Why the refusal to double check the results by sending them to another DNA lab elsewhere in the world? 

Over the years, many reputable teams of scientists have applied to Egyptian authorities to test the DNA of some very famous Egyptian mummies, including King Tut himself and Rameses I. According to an article in London's Sunday Times, Egyptian officials may have blocked research on King Tut, because "they feared Israel would use the tests to suggest the boy pharaoh was related to Hebrew patriarchs." And in another article at Thetimes.co.uk, noted Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass is quoted as saying that DNA testing “is not always accurate and cannot be done with complete success when dealing with mummies. Until we know for sure that it is accurate, we will not use it in our research.” 

Is this a case of too much information may be a dangerous thing? He has also said, more recently, that the DNA of Egyptian mummies can only be tested by the Egyptians themselves. 

As long as politics plays any part in the scientific study of DNA from Egyptian mummies, the results will be less than meaningful. With the political upheaval in Egypt in reent years, it is difficult to know if further DNA testing will ever be done. And if it is, will such testing be done to a high standard?