Scientists recreate faces of Egyptian mummies from ancient DNA

The discovery of mummified remains across Egypt has been one of the most significant sources of our knowledge of that ancient world. The remains indicate the practices, culture and belief system of the ancient civilisation. However, physical appearance has always been in question. Scientists have now reconstructed the faces of mummies from their DNA.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of Tubingen in Germany have processed mummy samples, estimated to be between 2,023 and 2,797 years old, creating predictable faces. Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology company that develops next-generation therapeutic and forensic products, has predicted these facial structures of three ancient mummies that belong to Abusir el-Meleq, an ancient Nile community in Egypt.

It used whole-genome sequencing data from the European Nucleotide Archive to select three samples with the highest quality data to analyse.

Scientists say that this is the first time a comprehensive DNA phenotyping has been performed on human DNA of this age, and the results are being presented to the forensic community. “It’s great to see how genome sequencing and advanced bioinformatics can be applied to ancient DNA samples,” said Dr Ellen Greytak, Parabon’s Director of Bioinformatics, in a statement.

Parabon Labs, in a statement, said that the work was made possible by the recent bioinformatics advances in the field of low-coverage imputation, which allows highly accurate determination of common SNP genotypes from low-coverage sequencing data. Scientists used the technology to predict each mummy’s ancestry, pigmentation, and face morphology. They found that their ancestry was more similar to the modern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern individuals than modern Egyptians.

The facial complexion on the mummies has been predicted to be light brown, with dark eyes and hair and no freckles, which are highly consistent with previous observations 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.

Scientists predicting the values of face principal components, which are transformed into 3D graphical meshes, used them to make a three-dimensional face morphology. They then compared face predictions to one another and calculated heat maps to show the differences between the subjects. ProtonLabs said that these differences were then emphasised to create caricatured faces, which were combined with the pigmentation predictions to create composites of the individuals’ likely appearance at age 25 by Parabon’s forensic artist.

“These techniques are revolutionising ancient DNA analysis because they operate on fragmented DNA and have been shown to be sensitive down to only 10 picograms of DNA,” Greytak added.

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