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Genetic Secrets of Ancient Egypt Unwrapped: DNA from Mummies found

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Scientist Verena Schuenemann is shown examining the lower jaw bone of an ancient Egyptian mummy at the Palaeogenetics Laboratory at the University of Tuebingen in Germany in this undated photograph, May 30, 2017. VOA

DNA from mummies found at a site once known for its cult to the Egyptian god of the afterlife is unwrapping intriguing insight into the people of ancient Egypt, including a surprise discovery that they had scant genetic ties to sub-Saharan Africa.

Scientists on Tuesday said they examined genome data from 90 mummies from the Abusir el-Malek archaeological site, located about 70 miles (115 km) south of Cairo, in the most sophisticated genetic study of ancient Egyptians ever conducted.

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The DNA was extracted from the teeth and bones of mummies from a vast burial ground associated with the green-skinned god Osiris. The oldest were from about 1388 BC during the New Kingdom, a high point in ancient Egyptian influence and culture.

Genomes provide a surprise

The most recent were from about 426 AD, centuries after Egypt had become a Roman Empire province.

“There has been much discussion about the genetic ancestry of ancient Egyptians,” said archeogeneticist Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, who led the study published in the journal Nature Communications.

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“Are modern Egyptians direct descendants of ancient Egyptians? Was there genetic continuity in Egypt through time? Did foreign invaders change the genetic makeup: for example, did Egyptians become more ‘European’ after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt?” Krause added. “Ancient DNA can address those questions.”

The genomes showed that, unlike modern Egyptians, ancient Egyptians had little to no genetic kinship with sub-Saharan populations, some of which like ancient Ethiopia were known to have had significant interactions with Egypt.

The closest genetic ties were to the peoples of the ancient Near East, spanning parts of Iraq and Turkey as well as Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Middle-class mummies

Egypt, located in North Africa at a crossroads of continents in the ancient Mediterranean world, for millennia boasted one of the most advanced civilizations in antiquity, known for military might, wondrous architecture including massive pyramids and imposing temples, art, hieroglyphs and a pantheon of deities.

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Mummification was used to preserve the bodies of the dead for the afterlife. The mummies in the study were of middle-class people, not royalty.

The researchers found genetic continuity spanning the New Kingdom and Roman times, with the amount of sub-Saharan ancestry increasing substantially about 700 years ago, for unclear reasons.

“There was no detectable change for those 1,800 years of Egyptian history,” Krause said. “The big change happened between then and now.” (VOA)

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U.N. Urges Egypt To Halt All Executions Based On Confessions Obtained Against Torture

“There is significant cause for concern that due process and fair trial guarantees may not have been followed in some or all of these cases, and that the very serious allegations concerning the use of torture were not properly investigated,” Colville said.

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Family members of those convicted and executed for the killing of public prosecutor Hisham Barakat gather at Zynhom morgue in Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 20, 2019, as they wait for their bodies to be released. VOA

The U.N. Human Rights Office is urging Egypt to halt all executions and to conduct investigations into all allegations that people are subjected to the death penalty based on confessions obtained under torture.

Egypt has executed 15 people in February and the U.N. Human Rights Office notes the month is not yet over. The agency reports nine people were executed this week in a case related to the killing of Egypt’s General Prosecutor, Hisham Barakat.

Regarding six other killings earlier this month, it says three men were convicted of assassinating a police officer and three others in connection with the murder of the son of a judge.

Human rights office spokesman Rupert Colville said in all cases the defendants have told the court they were subjected to torture to make them confess to the crimes of which they were accused.

FILE - A defendant is seen caged in a courtroom in Torah prison, southern Cairo, Egypt, Aug. 22, 2015.
A defendant is seen caged in a courtroom in Torah prison, southern Cairo, Egypt, Aug. 22, 2015. VOA

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In June 2017, the U.N. Committee against Torture completed a four-year confidential inquiry and concluded that torture is “practiced systematically” in Egypt. Colville told VOA the recent allegations of torture, in almost all of these cases, come against this well-established backdrop that torture is endemic in Egypt.

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“If torture was used to make a confession a considerable part of the prosecution’s case, then that should not be admitted in court. That confession produced under torture should not be admissible. And when these allegations have been brought up by the defense lawyers and so on, our belief is they are not being taken seriously enough by the courts,” he said.

Colville said a number of individuals convicted under similar circumstances in Egypt have exhausted all legal proceedings. He says they currently are on death row at imminent risk of execution. (VOA)