A new study suggests that a pair of Egyptian “brother mummies” that were buried next to each other close to 4,000 years ago and discovered more than a century ago might have been half brothers, and not full brothers as originally thought.
The story behind the new discovery began in 1907, when excavators discovered two mummies in the village of Deir Rifeh, which is located about 250 miles (400 kilometers) south of Cairo. According to Live Science, the mummies, who were named Nakht-Ankh and Khnum-Nakht, were believed to be noble men who died around 1800 B.C., toward the end of the 12th Dynasty of Egypt. Nakht-Ankh was said to be the older brother by at least 20 years, though it was Khnum-Nakht who died first, passing away six months before his brother at the approximate age of 40, as suggested by the dates on their bandages.
Based on writings on the brother mummies’ coffins, researchers theorized that their mother might have been named Khnum-Aa. though multiple studies weren’t able to confirm this information, and had even suggested that the men might not have been related to each other after all. That changed in the new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science for its February 2018 issue, as analysis of DNA from the mummies’ teeth revealed that Nakht-Ankh and Khnum-Nakht had the same mother. The paper also hinted at an interesting twist to the brothers’ family history — both men appear to have had different fathers.
“This is an extremely rare, perhaps unique, case where we have been able to test an ancient claim of a maternal relationship made in hieroglyphic texts, alongside the bodies of the individuals concerned,” said study co-author Campbell Price of the University of Manchester’s Manchester Museum, in an interview with Live Science.
Earlier studies had mostly offered “inconclusive or contradictory” evidence pertaining to the blood relationship both men had with each other and with their parents, Price added. In 1908, a team of researchers led by Margaret Murray had studied the brother mummies soon after they were brought to the University of Manchester, and suggested that the two men did not have any blood relation, based on analysis of their skulls and bodies. This was also suggested by a study conducted in the 1970s that had looked at the mummies’ skin pigmentation.
Taking into account all the unanswered questions posed by the aforementioned studies, Price and his colleagues took two molars from each of the brother mummies and extracted DNA from the teeth. A third molar had to be pulled from younger brother Khnum-Nakht, due to the poor quality of the DNA taken from the first two molars, and the observation that his remains were in worse shape than those of Nakht-Ankh.
Based on their analysis, the two mummies were indeed related to each other, as they both had the mitochondrial haplotype M1a1, meaning they had the same mother, according to the Daily Mail. However, analysis of the Y chromosomal DNA showed enough variations to suggest that the supposed “elite men” were most likely born to different fathers, even as results of this analysis were described by the researchers as being “less complete.”
Manchester Institute of Biotechnology research associate Konstantina Drosou, lead researcher on the new study, explained to Live Science that it was difficult to make any conclusions about the mummies’ paternal lineage, as the Y chromosome can only be found in one copy per cell, as opposed to the mitochondrial DNA, which has multiple copies in a single cell.
As previous research had suggested that Khnum-Nakht and Nakht-Ankh might have had royal origins, the Washington Post noted that the men were both sons of local governors, and did not come from royalty. According to Price, governors were “basically the [headmen] of the local town,” giving them “elite” status nonetheless.
Despite the new study having provided much more clarity to the background of Nakht-Ankh and Khnum-Nakht, the story of how the brother mummies might have had different fathers is still a mystery. As noted by the Daily Mail, existing documents from Ancient Egypt had painted a picture of a highly male-dominated society, where men, especially those of high social status, supposedly engaged in infidelity without much fear of punishment, and women who cheated on their male partners were likely to face dire consequences for their actions. These documents also suggest that illegitimate children probably did not face any discrimination or other challenges due to their status.