Faces of Three Ancient Egyptians Brought to Life Using 2,000-Year-Old DNA

The faces of three ancient Egyptian men have been brought to life by scientists, using DNA that is more than 2,000 years old.

This is thought to be the first time modern techniques have been used on human DNA of this age, with the trio of samples estimated to be between 2,023 and 2,797 years old.

The trio were referred to as JK2134, dating from 776-569 BC, JK2888, estimated to be alive around 97-2 BC, and JK2911, believed to have lived circa 769-560 BC.

The features of the ancient Egyptian mummies were unveiled by Parabon NanoLabs, who used cutting-edge technology and a forensic artist to predict the men's appearance around age 25.

The mummies came from an ancient Nile community, known as the Abusir el-Meleq. The team noted that their ancestry more closely matched modern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern individuals, rather than Egyptians.

Their complexions were thought to be light brown, with dark hair and eyes and no freckles. A press release from Parabon went into detail, saying: "These results are highly consistent with Schuenemann et al's conclusions that 'ancient Egyptians shared more ancestry with Near Easterners than present-day Egyptians, who received additional sub-Saharan admixture in more recent times' and that they had an allele for lighter skin.'"

Raw data was obtained from the three ancient Egyptian mummies, available in the European Nucleotide Archive (ENA), before they were sequenced and "aligned to the human reference genome." Enzymatic damage repair was performed on each sample.

The work was only made possible due to biometric advances in the field of low-coverage imputation, it was claimed. Parabon bioinformaticist and WGS analyst Dr. Janet Cady, who spearheaded the work, said: "Parabon has been the leader in forensic microarray analysis for years, and with the introduction of this new imputation technology, we can now handle even the most challenging samples, ancient or forensic."

Ancient Egyptian mummies brought to life.
The face of three ancient Egyptian mummies have been brought to life by Parabon NanoLabs, Inc. using DNA that's more than 2,000 years old. Janet Cady, Mark Wilson, and Ellen Greytak/Parabon NanoLabs, Inc.

Following the "imputation" stage, Parabon applied its "Snapshot DNA Phenotyping pipeline" to the three ancient mummy samples. Snapshot, designed to cope with missing data in challenging forensic samples, then "predicted each mummy's ancestry, pigmentation, and face morphology." The three-dimensional "face morphology" revealed the men's front and side profiles, as well as a facial heat map.

Dr. Ellen Greytak, Parabon's director of bioinformatics, said: "It's great to see how genome sequencing and advanced bioinformatics can be applied to ancient DNA samples.

"Just like in Parabon's law enforcement casework, these techniques are revolutionizing ancient DNA analysis because they operate on fragmented DNA and have been shown to be sensitive down to only 10 picograms of DNA."

The results are due to be presented at the 32nd International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI), being held this week in Orlando.

The samples were processed by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and the University of Tubingen in Germany.