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The F.B.I. Helped a Museum Learn the Identity of a 4,000-Year-Old Severed Head

Cutting-edge DNA analysis revealed the mummified head belonged to Djehutynakht, a governor in Middle Kingdom Egypt, and not his wife as some believed

Governor Djehutynakht (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
smithsonian.com

In 2009, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts displayed painted coffins, statues, vases and other goods, the "secrets" of an Egyptian tomb that archaeologists had discovered more than nine decades earlier in Deir el-Bersha. Among the assemblage of artifacts from the tomb, known as 10A, was a mummified head. But who, the curators wondered, did the head belonged to?

The tomb had been the final resting place of local governor in early Middle Kingdom Egypt named Djehutynakht and his wife, also named Djehutynakht. By the time the tomb was spotted by archaeologists, it had already been ransacked by looters, and they left the bandage-wrapped head sitting on top of one of the coffins.

Archaeologists could not determine if the head was from the male or female corpse, and it didn’t seem likely they would ever have an answer for whether it was from Djehutynakht ​or, well, Djehutynakht. A CT scan of the bones in the skull revealed the jaw components​ that could identify the sex had been removed. Extracting DNA from ancient Egyptian mummies was thought to be impossible, especially since the hot dry conditions in Egypt deteriorate DNA quickly. But now, reports Nicholas St. Fleur at The New York Times, the case has finally been solved with help from the F.B.I.

The same year the museum launched the exhibition, it allowed a molar to be extracted from the mummy’s head in the hopes of finally identifying it. But researchers were unable to retrieve any DNA from the tooth. Until, that is, Odile Loreille at the F.B.I. forensics lab took another look in 2016. A veteran DNA analyst who has recovered DNA from Titanic victims, ancient cave bears and two children from the murdered Romanov family, she writes in a new paper on the DNA extraction, published in the journal Genes, that they were able to find readable strands of DNA in the powdered tooth.

According to Loreille's findings, the skull was male, meaning it was likely the remains of Djehutynakht the governor. “It’s one of the Holy Grails of ancient DNA to collect good data from Egyptian mummies,” Pontus Skoglund, a geneticist at the Francis Crick Institute in London who was involved in the study, tells St. Fleur. “It was very exciting to see that Odile got something that looked like it could be authentic ancient DNA.”

But there were questions, including from Loreille, about the extraction. Was the DNA the first DNA to be extracted from an Egyptian mummy or had it been contaminated? To their surprise, while modern Egyptians are closely related to people in sub-Saharan Africa, the mitochondrial DNA extracted from the mummy indicated the governor came from Eurasian ancestry. To confirm the results, the F.B.I. team sent samples to Harvard and the Department of Homeland Security for further testing. Those results also indicated Eurasian ancestry.

While that work was going on, researchers from University of Tuebingen and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History were able to sequence the genomes of three ancient Egyptian mummies, finding that they were related to people from the eastern Mediterranean.

While Loreille tells St. Fleur she was disappointed not to be the first to publish DNA results from an ancient Egyptian mummy, the Max Planck study helps confirm that her findings of Eurasian ancestry are probably correct.

There is one mystery about the mummified head that DNA cannot answer. Rafi Letzter at LiveScience reports that there were, in fact, two governors named Djehutynakht that ruled the area known as Hare Nome at different points in time, and nothing recovered from 10A so far reveals whose shoulders that mummified head sat upon.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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