Some today believe they were Sub-Saharan Africans. Reactionaries meanwhile, say that there's never been any significant black civilizations, an utter falsehood.
There were several in fact, highly advanced African empires and kingdoms throughout history. Curiously, some extreme Right groups have even used blood group data to proclaim a Nordic origin to King Tut and his brethren.
The problem, it was thought that mummy DNA couldn't be sequenced.
But a group of international researchers, using unique methods, have overcome the barriers to do just that. They found that the ancient Egyptians were most closely related to the peoples of the Near East, particularly from the Levant.
This is the Eastern Mediterranean which today includes the countries of,
The mummies used were from the New Kingdom and a later period, when Egypt was under Roman rule.
Modern Egyptians share 8% of their genome with central Africans, far more than ancient ones, according to the study (Ancient Egyptian Mummy Genomes Suggest an Increase of Sub-Saharan African Ancestry in post-Roman Periods), published in the journal Nature Communications.
The influx of Sub-Saharan genes only occurred within the last 1,500 years. This could be attributed to the trans-Saharan slave trade or just from regular, long distance trade between the two regions.
Improved mobility on the Nile during this period increased trade with the interior, researchers claim. Egypt over the span of antiquity was conquered many times including by Alexander the Great, by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and more.
Researchers wanted to know if these constant waves of invaders caused any major genetic changes in the populace over time.
Group leader Wolfgang Haak at the Max Planck Institute in Germany said,
The study was led by archeo-geneticist Johannes Krause, also of the Max Planck Institute.
Historically, there's been a problem finding intact DNA from ancient Egyptian mummies.
The mummified remains
of Queen Hatshepsut wet-nurse Sitre-In.
Egyptian Museum, Cairo. 2007.
It was also thought that, even if genetic material were recovered, it may not be reliable.
Despite this, Krause and colleagues have been able to introduce robust DNA sequencing and verification techniques, and completed the first successful genomic testing on ancient Egyptian mummies.
Each came from Abusir el-Meleq, an archaeological site situated along the Nile, 70 miles (115 km) south of Cairo.
This necropolis there houses mummies which display aspects revealing a dedication to the cult of Osiris, the green-skinned god of the afterlife.
First, the mitochondrial genomes from 90 of mummies were taken. From these, Krause and colleagues found that they could get the entire genomes from just three of the mummies in all.
For this study, scientists took teeth, bone, and soft tissue samples. The teeth and bones offered the most DNA. They were protected by the soft tissue which has been preserved through the embalming process.
Researchers took these samples back to a lab in Germany. They began by sterilizing the room. Then they put the samples under UV radiation for an hour to sterilize them.
From there, they were able to perform DNA sequencing.
An Egyptian necropolis.
Researchers also gathered historical and archaeological data, to give their discoveries some context. They wanted to know what changes had occurred over time.
To find out, they compared the mummies' genomes to that of 100 modern Egyptians and 125 Ethiopians.
The oldest mummy sequenced was from the New Kingdom, 1,388 BCE, when Egypt was at the height of its power and glory.
The youngest was from 426 CE, when the country was ruled from Rome. The ability to acquire genomic data on ancient Egyptians is a dramatic achievement, which opens up new avenues of research.
One limitation according to their report,
In southern Egypt they say, the genetic makeup of the people may have been different, being closer to the interior of the continent.
Researchers in future want to determine exactly when Sub-Saharan African genes seeped into the Egyptian genome and why. They'll also want to know where ancient Egyptians themselves came from.
To do so, they'll have to identify older DNA from, as Krause said,
Using high-throughput DNA sequencing and cutting-edge authentication techniques, researchers proved they could retrieve reliable DNA from mummies, despite the unforgiving climate and damaging embalming techniques.
Further testing will likely contribute much knowledge to our understanding of the ancient Egyptians and perhaps even those from other places as well, helping to fill in the gaps in humanity's collective memory.
To learn about the latest Egyptian archaeological find, watch below video: