DNA from Kemet: does it really have all of the answers?

DNA from Kemet

Thanks to Charles B for raising the following question last week:

What do you say to Eurocentrics who claim that the ancient Egyptians were European Caucasians and they have DNA evidence to to back it up?

I will start by saying that I am not an evolutionary biologist or a biological anthropologist, and I do not undertake research in this very specialised field. It is perhaps worth noting that many people do seem to feel qualified to comment on this subject, when they themselves are equally placed. For this reason, I would urge caution when reading and referencing even academic articles when using DNA to identify ‘race’. Here are some pointers:

  1. If you can access them*, read academic papers that are peer-reviewed by specialists within a particular field. This process is meant to ensure a certain quality control and involves the process of academic research being checked by two or three other scholars within that field before it is accepted for publication. In the Social Sciences and Sciences, the source of evidence and methodologies are rigorously checked. Egyptological research, unfortunately rarely utilises theoretical frameworks, models, or tested methods of investigation in the same way that other fields do.
  2. If you are struggling with the technical terms used in these papers then I would recommend that you look at the following workshop presented by Dr Shomarka Keita. Dr Keita is well qualified to write on both Kemite culture and biological genealogy. Has studied medicine, biological anthropology and Egyptology. I defer to his research because it is clearly evidenced, and when he presents it he explains any issues of interpretation that many other academics either assume non-specialists understand, or choose to disregard.

*Many of these papers can be found by a using google scholar search and accessed for free because the authors have loaded PDFs onto their academic profiles or websites.

Key points to remember when thinking about DNA

Like many people I once assumed that DNA had all of the answers when it came to the genealogical ancestry of the people from Kemet. However, having attended workshops and conference papers by Shomarka Keita, and having had the privilege of discussing this subject with him in person, I now accept that this is not necessarily the case.

Biological genealogy is one of a number of types of evidence that can be used to understand more about the people of Kemet. Others include: the physical and cultural geography of the land, the language, and the culture. In the workshop that is referenced above Dr Keita is keen to stress that these lines of evidence do not necessarily run parallel; and he is right to do so.

My reasons for initially believing that science had the answers is that the other types of evidence listed above are restricted by the knowledge of the people who interpret them. I have noted previously that if cultural parallels are restricted then those who are investigating them are ignoring potential links to other groups simply because they are not aware that they exist. Similarly, in regard to language, very few people have the language skills that range from Ancient Kemite to other African regions. It is only in recent years that scholars such as Dr Abdul Salau have started to fully explore similarities between Yoruba and the language of Ancient Kemet.

But…

DNA testing also relies on comparison. This is a key point in answer to Charles’ question above. If, when you compare DNA samples, you do not have a large enough dataset, and if the model that you use is not rooted in African diversity then the results can be misleading.

Simplification of ‘racial’ types

There are other methods rooted in the biological sciences to compare groups of people. Cranial and limb ratio studies are also used to determine shared physiological traits of groups of people. Models of ‘racial’ types work on the assumption that people who belong to the same group share well-defined sets of physical traits. Many people assume that if people look the same they must be connected, and by the same argument any difference is appearance is often explained through mixture.

In his lecture Dr Keita uses the Berber people of North Africa as an example of how this approach can be misleading. Many people who belong to this cultural group have light skin, blue eyes and blonde hair. It is therefore often assumed that they have some kind of European ancestry. However, when their genealogy is compared to African and European groups they cluster with the former as Africans.

African biological variations  

egypt_in_africa_tomb_of_Sobekhotep_painting
Detail from the wall paintings from the Tomb of Sobekhotep, Thebes, Egypt. Around 1400 BCE. Gallery 65 The British Museum

I have noted in previous posts that people often work from the premise that in order to be categorised as ‘African’ an individual has to meet discreet criteria. This has led to the acceptance within Egyptology of ‘Nubians’ (see above) as African people but as Kemites as somehow mixed in terms of their racialised identity. In doing this, people fail to take account of biological variations of African people. Whereas those who understand that there is variation in skin colour, physical features and hair types amongst people of African descent will make reference to the fact that Kemite artists showed this when they represented their people; others use an over-simplified interpretation of this variation to claim that the ancient people of Kemet were descended from Europeans.

It is for this reason that the term Mediterranean is often used as a descriptor of the people of Ancient Kemet. In fact, I once heard a colleague who is a forensic anthropologist who works on human remains from Egypt insist that the term was a valid one. When I asked her to explain to me what she meant by the term Mediterranean she responded by stating that Egypt was on the Mediterranean coast. So she was using a geographical term to denote racial identity. I pointed out that more of Egypt is on the continent of Africa and asked why we could not use that term as a descriptor instead. I did not get an answer. The conversation was a public one during a lecture that I presented in Cambridge in 2014.

In conclusion

I would urge people to look at the lecture I link to above, in which Shomarka Keita explains many of the pitfalls of categorising humans. It is also important to consider the historical and cultural links between groups of people as well as their genealogy. As I have previously noted, through archaeology and the study of Kemite material culture we can make many connections between the people of Kemet, and other cultural groups on the African continent. DNA offers one way to consider ancestry, but like other methods it can distorted.

 

16 thoughts on “DNA from Kemet: does it really have all of the answers?”

      1. That’s true. It’s still interesting that Modern Egyptians are more SSA than these Ancient samples, that the 3 ancient Samples cluster together and cluster closer to the modern Levantine/Middle East samples.

        1. As Dr Keita points out in his lecture- and at the time this came as a real shock to me- you can cluster people from central Africa with those from Scandinavia if you throw the net too widely. His advice at the time was to look at the linguistic, geographical, cultural links rather than relying on DNA.

          1. What would you say to people who have asserted that modern Egyptians are Middle Eastern ‘invaders’ when these latest results, although with flaws, are showing that there’s an increase in SSA ancestry in moderns and that the mummies they sampled cluster with near easterners ?

              1. Following is a quote from part of the study;

                “modern Egyptians are shifted towards sub-Saharan African populations. Model-based clustering using ADMIXTURE37 (Fig. 4b, Supplementary Fig. 4) further supports these results and reveals that the three ancient Egyptians differ from modern Egyptians by a relatively larger Near Eastern genetic component, in particular a component found in Neolithic Levantine ancient individuals36 (Fig. 4b). In contrast, a substantially larger sub-Saharan African component, found primarily in West-African Yoruba, is seen in modern Egyptians compared to the ancient samples”

                How does the above fit in with the assertion from some that Modern Egyptians equal ‘Arab invaders’ ?

                    1. The sample size is very small; it is limited to a single area; it covers a period of over 1000 years; and the majority of the sample was taken from Late Period to the Roman Period, so it really isn’t possible to extrapolate to earlier periods. All of these limitations are, if I recall correctly, cited in the full paper; however, this doesn’t mean that we can just ignore their impact on the validity of the study in a broader context.

  1. In regards to modern Egyptians, are they genetically the same as ancient Egyptians? I’m fascinated by ancient Egypt and I read on Wikipedia, which I know isn’t a credible source, that modern Egyptians descend from the ancient Egyptians and have little foreign admixture. I don’t buy that because I know the history of foreign invasions and there is no telling what type of genetic impact it could have had on the indigenous population. Also, when I look at pictures of modern Egyptians in lower Egypt they don’t resemble the people of ancient Egypt that were depicted on tomb reliefs etc…they look more like west Asians from the Middle East that were depicted by the ancient Egyptians. However, I do see a resemblance among southern Egyptians, they look like they could fit right in with the ancient Egyptians.

    1. Hi Matt, if we look at a basic timeline of when there were people settling in Egypt/Kemet from other countries it becomes clear why there are cultural and visual differences between modern and ancient. Since 332 BCE when the Macedonian Greeks arrived in Egypt, followed by Roman rule, and then much later the Arab settlement large numbers of non-indigenous people have populated the region. DNA aside the timeline demonstrates how the population has changed over the past 2300 years, and that is a long time! In my opinion, and I’m guided here by specialists as discussed in the article, DNA isn’t the best means of looking at population origin or diversity because it is so heavily dependent on the sample size and also restricted in terms of which lines can traced. Hence some of the more recent criticisms of DNA testing to establish ancestry today. If you look at Kushite culture and compare it to Kemetic in the Roman period we see two very different scenarios. Probably because the indigenous rulers continued in Kush.

  2. So Berbers genetically cluster with Africans. I always thought they were of remains of Mediterranean stock due to GrecoRomans invasions in North Africa who assimilated themselves in Tuareg( Berber like people) cultures and societies. But they are African according to Dr.Keita even high percentages as 92% and even higher African dna. Are their light skin, blond hair, blue eyes a sign of albinism.

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