THIRTY FEET BENEATH THE DESERT of southern Egypt, Yehia Gad stands in a cramped, stone tomb. On the wall, brightly-colored paintings tell the story of an ancient king’s journey into the afterlife. The precise strokes show a mummy embalmed with great care, a perilous battle for his soul, and an eternity spent riding high with the Sun.
Gad moves slowly, encased in a protective mask and gown, and a hat that hides his neat, grey hair. In front of him, on a wooden table, is the body that was buried here more than 3,000 years ago.
The stick-thin figure is little more than a silhouette, black as coal, with empty eye sockets and skin that’s cracked like parched earth. This is Tutankhamun, Egypt’s most famous pharaoh, a man whose people believed was a god on earth.
Gad puts on a pair of white gloves and picks up a biopsy needle.
It is February 2008. President Mubarak reigns over Egypt these days, and the nation’s antiquities service is led by a forceful, charismatic archaeologist called Zahi Hawass.
Gad isn’t the first to attempt to test Tutankhamun’s DNA, but he is the first to get this far. Previous efforts by foreigners were cancelled at the last minute. After decades of outside interference, Egypt’s politicians were reluctant to hand over the keys to the pharaohs’ origins — especially when the results, if dropped into the crucible of the Middle East, might prove explosive.
Now American television, with its lavish budgets, has bought its way to the king. The Discovery Channel has paid millions of dollars to film a pioneering study of Tutankhamun’s genetic heritage, this time carried out by the Egyptians themselves. If successful, the project could fill state coffers, achieve a scientific coup and reclaim dented national pride. Yet the goal is so ambitious that many of the world’s top researchers insist it isn’t even possible.
Gad, one of the country’s top geneticists, was chosen to lead the team. He has just one chance to collect the stories hidden deep within the king’s crumbling bones.
THE TOMB IS DRY AND HOT. Opposite looms the gowned shape of Hawass, who is scrutinizing Gad’s every move; squeezed into the corner is Discovery’s film crew. Gad tries to hide his nerves. He knows that the others doubt his ability, and for good reason: he has little practice working with mummies. Back in his Cairo lab, he has always been supervised by a foreign tutor. But his very first day pulling DNA without his teacher will be watched by the world, and his subject is the incalculably precious mummy of Tutankhamun.
Insha’Allah, he thinks.
With God’s will.
As the camera zooms in tight to capture every ounce of suspense, he eases his needle into the pharaoh’s fragile form. Watching him from the burial chamber wall is Anubis, the jackal-headed guardian of the dead. Pushing boundaries can be a dangerous business, as Gad is about to find out.
EIGHTY-SIX YEARS EARLIER, the renowned British archaeologist Howard Carter broke into these same stone chambers, poking his candle into the darkness to uncover his glimpse of what he called the “wonderful things” inside. Other pharaohs’ tombs had been discovered in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, but they were empty, looted centuries earlier, their occupants rewrapped and moved elsewhere. Tutankhamun’s tomb, though, was untouched. Hidden beneath flood debris for three millennia, its sumptuous contents were intact: jewellery, vases, thrones, even chariots. It was the most spectacular archaeological discovery of all time.
The world’s media seized on the story. Newspaper dispatches eagerly followed Carter’s progress as he burrowed into the tomb’s burial chamber to find gilt shrines, bejewelled coffins, and, finally, the mummy of the king himself. Millions worldwide, scholars and lay people alike, were already captivated by the statues, temples, and pyramids of ancient Egypt, but the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb were a sensation.
Just as gripping as Tutankhamun’s history and treasures were his religious connections. Given Ancient Egypt’s prominent role in the Old Testament, with figures such as Moses and Joseph described as close to the royal family, Tutankhamun was seen as a route to greater knowledge about the events recounted in the Bible; a bridge between mythology and historical fact. Many viewed the Egyptians as the founders of civilization, the ones holding the key to the beginnings of the entire human enterprise.
Tutankhamun reigned around 1300 BC, during the fall of the rich and powerful 18th Dynasty. His predecessor had thrown out Egypt’s traditional gods to become history’s first known monotheist, worshipping only the Sun. But beyond the knowledge that Tutankhamun had reversed those changes before dying mysteriously with no heirs, little was known: subsequent rulers tried to erase the dynasty’s heretical episodes from history.
Carter’s discovery promised a glimpse into this murky story, but the 1920s were a difficult time for Egypt. Britain, the latest in a long line of occupiers, had just granted the country limited independence under the dictatorial King Fuad. The unimaginable material value of Carter’s haul inflamed tensions between western archaeologists, who had been walking off with Egypt’s treasures for the past century, and the Egyptians themselves, who were beginning to assert some ownership over their heritage and country.
In one moment of brinkmanship not long after Carter opened the king’s sarcophagus, he and antiquities officials deliberately locked each other out of the tomb, leaving the heavy granite sarcophagus lid hanging precariously over the pharaoh’s mummy. The conflict ended only after a bitter legal battle that saw Carter excluded from the tomb for almost a year.
Once Carter returned, his team finally began studying the mummy. Speculation on Tutankhamun’s story and background ran rampant. Was he young? Old? How did he die? Some scholars even wondered whether Tutankhamun could be the pharaoh of Exodus, who chased Moses and the Israelites to the Red Sea.
Over eight meticulous days in November 1925, Carter’s team unwrapped Tutankhamun. As they peeled the bandages away, they found a forest of jewelry: rings, bangles, amulets and more, intended to ease the king’s passage into the afterlife. But even though Tutankhamun’s hoard was intact, his body was in bad condition. The embalmers had poured huge quantities of oils and resins over the pharaoh at the time of his burial. Those chemicals, combined with thousands of years in a damp coffin, had left the flesh and bandages horribly charred.
Autopsies were fairly limited affairs in Carter’s day, but he and his colleagues measured the mummy’s bones and examined the body for wounds. They determined that he had died young, around the age of 18. The shape of his skull also suggested that he was closely related to an anonymous pharaoh found buried nearby, in a controversial tomb called KV55. But that was as much as they could glean. Getting to the bottom of Tutankhamun’s family history would require new technology to be invented, and new science to be discovered.
TODAY, THE STATE OF UTAH cradles a huge salt lake, the largest of its kind in the world. Eighty million years ago, however, it was a vast inland sea. The prehistoric animals that roamed its shores became immortalized in coal deposits until they caught the attention of Scott Woodward, a microbiologist from nearby Brigham Young University. In 1994 his team published a claim in the prestigious journal Science that seemed to open a passage to the past almost as spectacular as the moment Carter cracked into Tutankhamun’s tomb. They had rescued a few fragments of DNA from bones that almost certainly belonged to a dinosaur.
Woodward, a rising star with a boyish face and a high-school smile, had used a revolutionary new technique called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, to read the fossilized genes. The reaction works like a DNA photocopier, latching on to a target sequence of genetic material and then multiplying it thousands or millions of times: enough for study, not just speculation. DNA degrades over time, but now scientists were finding traces of it in everything from prehistoric plants to insects preserved in amber. Woodward’s study topped them all.
While Woodward wowed the world, in Cairo, Gad, a post-doctoral scientist at Egypt’s National Research Center, had just learned how to use PCR, and was becoming alive to its possibilities. His lab had been one of the first in Egypt to offer DNA fingerprinting, which hones in on specific regions of the genome that are known to vary between individuals, and is often used in forensics. If a trace of blood or semen was found at a crime scene, scientists could use PCR to amplify the DNA, and then use fingerprinting to identify a suspect.
Gad’s lab mainly dealt with paternity cases and immigration disputes, but he longed to be doing something else: using PCR to study his ancestors. The pharaohs, their cells presumably bursting with secrets about human origins, were held just down the road in the world-famous Egyptian Museum. But ancient DNA is a difficult field to get into. Samples are easily contaminated with modern material, so the work would require a specialized lab dedicated to the study of ancient specimens. Gad and his colleagues faced a conundrum. They couldn’t get funding for such a lab without a track record of experience in the field, but they couldn’t get a track record without a lab.
Woodward, meanwhile, was already at work in Egypt. In 1991, he had started using PCR to isolate DNA from mummies excavated at an early Christian cemetery at Faiyum, an oasis 80 miles southwest of Cairo. Two years later, he moved on to six intriguing mummies at the Egyptian Museum. X-ray images revealed that their necks were broken: most likely they had all been hanged. Using DNA from the bones, Woodward discovered that they represented three generations of the same doomed family.
Having proven his abilities, Woodward moved from these anonymous mummies to the pharaohs. Why work with unknowns when he could reconstruct DNA from one of Egypt’s ancient kings?
Woodward’s team caught a break in 1993 after a string of scathing reports revealed that the royal mummies in the Egyptian museum were going mouldy. As staff moved the mummies into new, climate-controlled cases, the Brigham Young researchers got their chance to collect some loose pieces of tissue that had fallen off.
With a documentary crew from American broadcaster PBS at hand, Woodward took those samples, grabbed from a selection of the museum’s 18th Dynasty kings and queens, as well as from two mummified fetuses found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, and carried them back to Utah for lab tests.
He hoped that DNA would reveal whether the fetuses were the king’s stillborn daughters, and whether inbreeding had contributed to his lack of living heirs. But before Woodward could take a sample from Tutankhamun himself, his project came to an abrupt end.
According to the Secrets of the Pharaohs documentary, which PBS eventually aired in 2000, the authorities decided Tutankhamun was too precious to disturb. Egyptologists widely believe, however, that the project was terminated due to concerns that an ulterior motive was at play.
As well as being a pioneering biologist, Woodward was also a high-ranking member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormons.
Mormons believe that a forgotten tribe of Jews, descendants of the biblical Joseph, who lived in Egypt and was close to the royal family, sailed from Jerusalem to the New World in 600 BC, and became the ancestors of the Native Americans. (This belief is in stark contrast to available DNA evidence, which suggests that the Native Americans ancestors came from Asia around 15,000 years ago.)
Mormons also believe that if they baptize their dead relatives, those who lived before the establishment of the church, and therefore were never given the opportunity to hear the Mormon gospel, those ancestors’ spirits can go to heaven.
This has led the Mormon Church to invest vast sums in genealogical research, as believers scour the world for ancestors they can posthumously convert. Many of the largest genealogical websites are linked to, or owned by, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including Ancestry.com and FamilySearch. Rolls of around a billion names that have been traced by Mormon researchers are held in the Granite Mountain Records Vault, a climate-controlled archive buried in the side of a canyon around 15 miles from Salt Lake City. Genetic testing is a way to accelerate this process, allowing church members to establish ancestral links without the drawn-out process of researching family trees.
But while the church encourages its members to baptize only direct ancestors, some of the faithful have gone much further. Jewish groups, for example, became enraged in 2012 when it emerged that some Mormons were vicariously baptizing victims of the Holocaust, including Anne Frank. Other prominent names baptized by proxy include Daniel Pearl, the Jewish reporter executed by al Qaeda in Pakistan in 2002, and even Adolf Hitler.
So the presence of Woodward and a team from Brigham Young, a Mormon university named after one of the movement’s early leaders, raised suspicions that they might be looking for distant ancestors they could convert to their religion. One prominent Egyptologist talked to me about Woodward’s work at Faiyum on condition of anonymity: there was a feeling that they wanted to baptize the bodies.
Woodward’s research grew even more controversial as he got closer to the royal mummies. Was he looking for ancestors there, too? Could he have been planning to convert the pharaohs?
Woodward now heads an organization called the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, which combines family trees with DNA profiling and studies the genetic origins of Native Americans. He did not respond to my requests for an interview and has never commented publicly on why his work was cut short.
It is simplistic to assign purely religious motivations to Woodward’s work. After all, presumably he wasn’t looking for souls to convert when he had been studying dinosaur bones. But given Mormon beliefs, it is no surprise that critics like Ahmed Saleh, an Egyptian who works for the antiquities service, wanted the pharaohs left alone. As Saleh complained to Egypt Today in 2005: they are trying to say that our Egyptian history belongs to them.
THE POSSIBILITY THAT Mormon researchers were trying to convert the ancients was a particular, peculiar threat to Egypt’s sense of self, but it soon became apparent that it wasn’t just the Mormons that the Egyptians were worried about: it was all foreigners.
In 2000, Sakuji Yoshimura, the respected director of the Institute of Egyptology at Waseda University in Japan, secured the permission of Egypt’s antiquities service to test Tutankhamun’s DNA. He hoped to determine the king’s lineage by comparing his genetic code to that of several other royal mummies thought to be his relations. But Yoshimura’s project, too, was cancelled, reportedly, just an hour before he was due to take his samples in the Valley of the Kings. The excuse given by the authorities was brief and vague: security reasons.
The press reported that the idea of anyone testing the mummies, even a team with impeccable credentials, had provoked anger within Egypt. Critics complained that foreigners were once again meddling with their country’s heritage, this time by trying to alter the established view of the pharaohs and their succession. One of those opposed to the project was Zahi Hawass, who was then in charge of the great pyramids at Giza. Hawass told a local newspaper that he refused to allow DNA tests on the bones of Giza mummies because there are some people who try to tamper with Egyptian history.
Such a response is perhaps understandable after decades of interference by foreigners, but that does not necessarily make it a security threat. It seems the biggest fear, as with Woodward’s work, was something else: what the results of genetic data might show about Tutankhamun’s origins.
The editor of Archaeology magazine, Mark Rose, reported in 2002 that the work was cancelled “due to concern that the results might strengthen an association between the family of Tutankhamun and the Biblical Moses.” An Egyptologist with close links to the antiquities service, speaking to me on condition of anonymity, agreed: “There was a fear it would be said that the pharaohs were Jewish.”
Specifically, if the results showed that Tutankhamun shared DNA with Jewish groups, there was concern that this could be used by Israel to argue that Egypt was part of the Promised Land.
This might seem an outlandish notion, but given the context of the Middle Eastern history, it is understandable. Egypt has waged several wars with Israel in recent history, and lost most of them, with territories like the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula falling under Tel Aviv’s control. Israel even crossed the Suez Canal into the Egyptian mainland during the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
The antipathy runs deep. Every October 6, Cairo comes alive with flags, fireworks and fighter planes in a huge military celebration aimed directly at Egypt’s Jewish neighbours. For many Egyptians, the idea that their most famous kings could share some common heritage with their enemies is a hard one to cope with.
Yet the possibility that Tutankhamun could share some DNA with ancient Jewish tribes is not far-fetched, says Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist and mummy specialist at the American University in Cairo. After all, the royal family might well have shared genes with others who originated in the same part of the world. “It is quite possible that you might find Semitic strains of DNA in the pharaohs,” she says. “Christians, Jews, Muslims — they all came from a similar gene pool originally.”
IF HOWARD CARTER PIONEERED the modern-day archaeological spectacle, Zahi Hawass mastered it. Despite a humble childhood in rural Egypt, Hawass studied in Alexandria and Cairo before earning his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. From there, the ambitious Egyptologist rose to take charge of the Giza plateau, home to the pyramids. He proved to be a modernizing force, introducing Giza’s first site-management plan, including entrance gates, visitor centers and conservation efforts. More controversially, he also starred in a series of television documentaries, including live specials for Fox in which he pried open coffins for the cameras and sent a robot into the Great Pyramid to drill through a mysterious stone door. His enthusiasm for mummies and tombs eliminated the snobbery from a potentially esoteric subject, and he forged his image carefully, always smiling, always wearing his Indiana Jones hat.
His exploits upset many of his colleagues in the archaeological community, who accused him of dumbing down the subject and chasing audiences at the expense of careful science. Crucially, though, he had the support of President Mubarak, and his energy and conviction enthralled viewers around the world. For the millions who watched, it was the first time that they had learned about ancient Egypt from an Egyptian. And whatever his faults, say his supporters, Hawass gave Egyptians a pride in their heritage that they hadn’t felt before.
In 2002, two years after Yoshimura’s chance to test the royal DNA was snatched away, Hawass was appointed to lead the entire antiquities agency. He clamped down on bribery and corruption and broadened his site-management plans and conservation efforts. The TV work continued: he partnered with American media companies to front dramatic documentaries with names like Secrets of the Pyramids and Quest for the Lost Pharaoh. He became an archaeological superstar.
For Gad, who was eager to study the royal mummies but had seen the bad press generated by previous attempts, the appointment of Hawass felt like a blow. Hawass had always been virulently opposed to DNA testing on mummies. With him in charge, the prospect of researching the pharaohs seemed further away than ever.
In fact, Hawass was beginning to understand that scientific studies on the mummies had a great potential value: not just intellectual, but financial. The documentaries had confirmed the huge hunger for information on ancient Egypt among international TV audiences. American broadcasters were willing to pay millions of dollars for dramatic new stories, while their programs also boosted tourist income.
Unfortunately, it was difficult to keep conjuring up significant archaeological finds for the cameras, and Carter’s stunning discovery in 1922 had never been repeated. Scientific studies, Hawass realized, were the next frontier. Rapidly evolving techniques such as DNA tests and CT scans (which use X-rays to probe inside objects) offered the potential for new revelations almost to order.
To get political and popular support at home, Hawass knew the work couldn’t be done by foreign scientists: Egypt had suffered too many decades of its ancient heritage being controlled by Westerners. Instead, the work would be paid for by foreign media companies, but carried out by home-grown teams with Egyptians in control.
Hawass decided to start with the royal mummies. He would investigate their family relationships and causes of death rather than their politically sensitive ethnic origins. By resurrecting these characters and their tangled families, he could create a glamorous soap opera of the past.
In 2004, Hawass approved a multi-million dollar project to CT-scan the mummies, funded by the National Geographic channel. The first target was Tutankhamun. The resulting documentary, King Tut’s Final Secrets, was broadcast in May 2005, and included the dramatic claim that Tutankhamun may have died after an accident that fractured his leg. The film was only the beginning though. The results of the scans, including a reconstruction of the king’s face, featured as the finale to a giant touring exhibition of his treasures. It was visited by nearly eight million people worldwide and smashed box-office records.
The tour made huge profits, with Egypt receiving more than $100 million, and triggered an explosion of “Tutmania” around the globe. President Mubarak and his government were involved every step of the way. Egypt’s culture minister personally announced the results of the CT scans. And when the Tutankhamun tour visited Germany, the exhibition was opened by the president himself.
Encouraged, Hawass moved on to DNA fingerprinting. He says he made an offer to the media companies: build a state-of-the-art DNA lab in the basement of Cairo’s Egyptian museum, and you’ll get the rights to film a documentary on the research. This time the Discovery Channel beat National Geographic, offering more than $5 million for the lab.
Now all Hawass needed was an Egyptian to run it.
In 2005, a few months after a sham election that saw Mubarak returned for his fifth term with more than 90 percent of the vote, Gad was appointed to lead the team that would gather Tutankhamun’s genetic code. There was just one problem: he had never actually worked on ancient DNA samples before — no one in Egypt had. So the Discovery producers brought in a forensic anthropologist and Egyptologist called Angelique Corthals, who was based at the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology in Manchester, UK, to teach him.
The lab built for the project, located beneath the lofty, dusty exhibition halls of the Egyptian Museum, is a network of futuristic underground rooms with shiny floors, UV lights, and sterilized walls: Corthals calls it “the bat cave.” When she arrived in June 2006, she and Gad’s team equipped it with the necessary scientific equipment, including a sequencing machine worth half a million dollars, and the latest forensic kit for extracting and amplifying DNA. “The budget was amazing,” she told me, later. “We could order whatever we wanted.”
Then she showed them how to extract ancient DNA using the “window technique”: slicing a plug of bandages, skin and flesh from a mummy, before using a biopsy needle, a hand-cranked drill surrounded by a hollow tube, to retrieve a sample of powdered bone. Afterwards, the square plug is eased back into the hole: done correctly, the damage barely shows. The novice team learned the techniques on the run as they embarked on their first project for Discovery: the search for Hatshepsut, one of the few female pharaohs, whose mummy had never been found.
The idea was to test DNA from anonymous remains from the Valley of the Kings that might be Hatshepsut, and compare them with known members of the royal family. In just a couple of months, Corthals and Gad had established a very tentative link between two of the mummies. The breakneck speed of filming meant that there was no chance to firm up the results, however: the preliminary hints were enough for Discovery’s documentary, Secrets of Egypt’s Lost Queen, and a cover story in National Geographic.
With Hatshepsut out of the way, Discovery pushed the team along: it was time to move on to Tutankhamun himself. The plan was to put together a royal family tree by testing Tutankhamun, along with ten other potentially related mummies. These included the nameless pharaoh from tomb KV55, and the two foetuses from Tutankhamun’s tomb. Gad sampled most of these mummies in the biopsy room under the museum, with Corthals’ help.
Tutankhamun, though, was still in his tomb, 300 miles away in the Valley of the Kings. Extracting bone samples from his mummy would be a pivotal scene in Discovery’s next film. To head off criticism that he was selling the pharaohs’ secrets to foreigners, Hawass decided that for this key moment, the team entering Tutankhamun’s tomb would have to be entirely Egyptian. Corthals would stay in Cairo watching via a live video link, and for the first time in his lightning-fast training, Gad would be on his own.
ON THE MORNING OF FEBRUARY 24, 2008, it was time to enter the pharaoh’s tomb.
“You could feel the tension coming up, up, up from everybody,” Gad told me. If he applied too much pressure with the biopsy needle, one of Tutankhamun’s fragile bones could easily snap. “But I put my faith in God, and we did it.”
Two-and-a-half hours later, 15 tiny bone samples from sites scattered across each of the king’s legs had been safely deposited into little plastic tubes.
When Gad was finished, Corthals asked for a close-up shot on the video link. The fragments looked charred, and not as clean as the samples that they had taken from the other mummies. Tutankhamun was not going to be an easy mummy to deal with.
To determine how the royal mummies were related, the team now moved on to amplifying fragments of mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down the maternal line, as well as DNA from the male-determining Y-chromosome, which goes from father to son. The main goal, however, was genetic fingerprinting, Gad’s speciality, on the DNA inherited from both parents.
Unfortunately, over the millennia, black resins and other materials used in the embalming process had crept into the mummies’ bones. The effects were particularly bad for Tutankhamun, whose embalmers had poured so many bucketfuls of unguents over his mummy that it was found stuck fast to the bottom of his coffin. These impurities clung tight to the king’s DNA, blocking chemical reactions and turning the samples inky black. It took six months to figure out how to remove the contaminants, and prepare the samples for analysis.
Finally, the team got its first result from the boy king: a snatch of Tutankhamun’s Y-chromosome. Today, Gad says he can’t remember the actual moment when they realized they had their results. The version laid down in his memory is the one that the team re-enacted later for the TV cameras: a close-up of colored peaks on a computer screen followed by smiles and cheers, and team members shaking white-gloved hands.
THE GRAND, COLUMNED HALLS of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo are usually dominated by stone giant statues and sarcophagi arranged to dramatic effect. But on February 17, 2010, all attention was focused on three neatly wrapped mummies. Behind them, four men sat in a row, their heads just visible over a forest of microphones carrying the logos of the world’s TV companies.
Gad and the team had exciting news for the waiting journalists. After amplifying DNA from every mummy they tested, they had constructed a five-generation family tree. The anonymous KV55 mummy, the team said, was actually Tutankhamun’s father, the revolutionary Akhenaten, while the foetuses were most likely his daughters. But the most jaw-dropping revelation was the secret that had felled the 18th Dynasty: Tutankhamun’s parents had been siblings.
Hawass ensured that the announcement was accompanied by a media blitz, including a research paper published in the esteemed Journal of the American Medical Association and a four-hour special on the Discovery Channel called King Tut Unwrapped. He later took to the pages of National Geographic to play up the ancient soap opera. The union between Akhenaten and his sister “planted the seed of their son’s early death,” he wrote. “Tutankhamun’s health was compromised from the moment he was conceived.”
The team didn’t publish any information on the mummies’ racial or ethnic origins, saying that the data on the issue was incomplete. But that didn’t stop others from speculating. A Swiss genealogy company named IGENEA issued a press release based on a blurry screen-grab from the Discovery documentary. It claimed that the colored peaks on the computer screen proved that Tutankhamun belonged to an ancestral line, or haplogroup, called R1b1a2, that is rare in modern Egypt but common in western Europeans.
This immediately led to assertions by neo-Nazi groups that King Tutankhamun had been “white,” including YouTube videos with titles such as King Tutankhamun’s Aryan DNA Results, while others angrily condemned the entire claim as a racist hoax. It played, once again, into the long-running battle over the king’s racial origins. While some worried about a Jewish connection, the argument over whether the king was black or white has inflamed fanatics worldwide. Far-right groups have used blood group data to claim that the ancient Egyptians were in fact Nordic, while others have been desperate to define the pharaohs as black African. A 1970s show of Tutankhamun’s treasures triggered demonstrations arguing that his African heritage was being denied, while the blockbusting 2005 tour was hit by protests in Los Angeles, when demonstrators argued that the reconstruction of the king’s face built from CT scan data was not sufficiently “black.”
For IGENEA, the whole affair was linked to a marketing exercise. It appears to have had no access to the data itself except a snapshot of a computer screen in a TV show, and yet the company now advertises a Tutankhamun DNA Project, which it describes as a search for the pharaoh’s “last living relatives.” The company offers a variety of online DNA tests costing up to $1,500. The sweetener? If your profile matches that of the boy king, you get your money back. Gad refuses to even say whether IGENEA’s analysis of the DNA shown in the documentary is correct. “This is not,” he says, “how science should be conveyed.”
Is there any culture in history that so many are so keen to lay claim to, whether for financial or political gain? “Owning” the pharaohs, it seems, means establishing a privileged place in history to being the founders of civilization. No matter that the ancient Egyptians were almost certainly an ethnically mixed group. They have become a mirror for whoever looks at them, focusing and reflecting the battles and prejudices of today.
Hawass and Gad’s triumphant announcement about Tutankhamun’s family triggered excited media coverage around the world. But what journalists didn’t report was that behind the scenes, the field of ancient DNA was locked in a bitter dispute. A few months later, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a short letter from Eske Willerslev and Eline Lorenzen at the Center for GeoGenetics in Copenhagen, Denmark, one of the world’s most respected ancient DNA labs. It tore Gad’s results — and his reputation — to shreds.
“In most, if not all, ancient Egyptian remains, DNA does not survive to a level that is currently retrievable,” the pair wrote. “We question the reliability of the genetic data presented in this study and therefore the validity of the authors’ conclusions.” Roughly translated, it meant: “we don’t believe a word of it.”
After the heady beginnings of the ancient DNA field in the 1980s and early 1990s, it didn’t take long for the fall. PCR turned out to be extremely susceptible to contamination, far more so than anyone had initially realized. Any trace of modern DNA in the environment — a speck of dust, a skin cell, a drop of sweat — could dwarf any ancient DNA present and skew the results. In study after study, further analysis revealed that many of the genes that researchers had reported so proudly weren’t ancient at all. Woodward’s 80-million-year-old dinosaur DNA? It actually belonged to a modern human.
Researchers had to start again, with incredibly strict techniques and controls. Some experts refused to study human mummies at all, arguing that with the available techniques it would never be possible to know for certain that samples had not been contaminated by people who had previously handled the mummies, or by the researchers themselves. Instead, they looked at other species — killer whales, penguins, cave bears — whose DNA is less likely to be floating around a lab.
Others scientists felt that the backlash had gone too far, however. They carried on working with human mummies, and publishing the DNA they amplified. The field divided into two camps — the sceptics and the believers — who published in different journals, attended different conferences, and refused to talk to each other. Researchers from the biggest labs, including Willerslev and Lorenzen, were in the sceptics’ camp. Many linked to the Egyptian Museum were believers.
Studies of Egyptian mummies were the most controversial of all, because DNA degrades quickly at high temperatures. Although it is possible to retrieve DNA from much older frozen specimens, such as mammoths, the sceptics argued that genetic material from Tutankhamun and his relatives couldn’t possibly have survived 3,000 years in the baking-hot deserts of Egypt. Far from uncovering the secrets of the pharaohs, Gad and his team had been fooled by cross-contamination with modern DNA.
Although Gad and his team wore gloves and masks when working on Tutankhamun, no previous archaeologists had done the same — from those unwrapping him in 1925 to those putting him through his CT scan some 80 years later. “You see TV people handling mummies with their bare hands, their sweat dripping on to the mummy,” Tom Gilbert, who heads two research groups at the Center for GeoGenetics, told me.“That’s a classic route of contamination.”
Gad’s team had used other safeguards, including repeating some of their results in a second lab. But critics countered that the team didn’t publish its raw data, and didn’t sequence much of the DNA they amplified. Lorenzen, one of the authors of the letter that attacked Gad’s work, told me: “When working with samples that are so well-known, it is important to convince readers that you have the right data. I am not convinced.” She says she felt obliged to speak out after seeing the huge press coverage the results gained, lamenting that what she saw as flawed conclusions would now be taught in school.
Other prominent scientists shared her concerns. The study “could do a much better job,” complained Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, one of the founders of the ancient DNA field. Ian Barnes, an expert in the survival of ancient DNA at the University of London, said he would be “extremely cautious” about using the data. Gilbert, of GeoGenetics, was more blunt. “I’ve given up on the field a long time ago,” he said. “It’s full of crap.”
Gad and his colleagues had been under intense pressure “from Discovery and the forceful Hawass” to get results from incredibly difficult samples. Had they stared into a mix of messy data and contamination and imagined the family relationships they so desperately wanted to see? The team insisted their results were real. They couldn’t prove it, but they were convinced that the elaborate embalming techniques used on Egyptian royalty must have helped to preserve the mummy DNA.
“I don’t understand people’s harshness,” says Carsten Pusch, who joined the Egyptian Museum team soon after the samples were collected. He told me about detailing the months of painstaking experimentation it took to coax DNA from the mummies bones. “These people have never worked with royal mummies. This is pioneering work. I just wish everyone would give us more time.”
Time was the one thing they turned out not to have.
GAD SAT IN HIS CAIRO LAB as the demonstrations outside grew stronger by the day. It was January 2011. A month earlier, a young street trader from Tunisia had burned himself alive in protest at police corruption. The riots he triggered had become a wave of mass defiance against repressive regimes around the Arab world.
Few analysts had predicted that Egypt would become a hotbed of demonstrations, but after 30 years of Mubarak’s stifling rule, the frustrations of the citizens were fierce. Huge crowds were turning out to protest against the dictatorship.
Gad was itching to take part in the marches, but worried about jeopardizing his job. If there was going to be a revolution, he thought that he could better help build a new Egypt if he maintained his position of influence. But by the morning of Friday January 28, he could stand by no more. The day promised the biggest demonstration yet, since Friday prayers would provide a natural starting point for marches. Gad went to pray with his two sons-in-law in a mosque at the Cairo suburb of Nasr City, then walked the five miles to Tahrir Square.
Events that day exploded beyond everyone’s expectations. Hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life demonstrated for a democratic Egypt, enduring violent attacks from pro-government groups as soldiers in tanks looked on. The police melted away. Normal order was suspended.
That night, the Egyptian Museum, which stands within sight of Tahrir Square, was broken into by thieves. The galleries containing items from Tutankhamun’s tomb and the surrounding period were worst hit, with glass cases smashed and their contents thrown, broken, onto the floor.
The authorities claimed that the rampage was carried out by opportunistic looters who entered through a glass skylight, but the fact that the ceiling is thirty feet high fuelled rumours that it was an inside job, staged by government supporters to make the demonstrators look bad. If so, the ruse backfired: once the break-in became apparent, young protesters formed a human chain around the museum to protect it from further attacks.
While Gad joined the protests, Zahi Hawass stuck with the regime. In the middle of the uprising he was rewarded with a promotion to the cabinet as minister of state for antiquities. The world’s most famous Egyptologist repeatedly denied reports that priceless artefacts around the country were being looted: nothing was missing from anywhere, including the Egyptian Museum, he said. “All of the Egyptian monuments are safe,” he wrote in a statement on his blog on February 2, adding later: “I want everyone to relax.” What was needed, he insisted, was a return to order. He appeared on foreign television expressing strong support for Mubarak.
A few days later, on February 11, Mubarak stepped down as president and the military stepped in. Hawass was forced to admit that antiquities were being looted after all, and his position began to unravel. His critics seized their opportunity, and he soon faced a string of accusations from stealing antiquities to corruption, all of which he denied.
In particular, he was attacked for his Tutankhamun projects, accused of illegally allowing National Geographic to exhibit Tutankhamun’s treasures abroad, and of threatening national security by allowing foreign researchers to study the royal mummies. The interim leadership was already under pressure from protesters wanting to purge remnants of Mubarak’s regime. In July 2011, Hawass was fired.
THAT AUTUMN, I met Gad in the leafy, sunlit garden of the Marriott hotel in Zamalek, an affluent district of Cairo, where we were served iced tea by scrupulously polite waiters. Gad, a small man in his fifties, fit in perfectly with his courteous manners and wry smile.
In a culture where prominent figures like Hawass are not slow to advertise their attributes and achievements, Gad is different. He is modest and thoughtful, and when he described his experiences to me, it felt as though his aim was not to impress but simply to share.
He brimmed with excitement about the revolution. He showed me videos of the clashes on his mobile phone, and pictures of his grandson, Ali, born into a new Egypt just two hours after Mubarak stepped down. With Egypt heading into the first democratic elections of its long history, Gad was elated about his country’s future. He called 2011 “the year of hope.”
When it came to research on the royal mummies, however, the revolution had brought catastrophic news. After Hawass’s departure, it became clear that the antiquities service had huge debts, owing hundreds of millions of dollars to various banks. The money that had poured in from the Tutankhamun exhibitions was gone.
The man who had defined archaeology in Egypt for more than a decade was out, and a succession of short-lived antiquities ministers arrived, each apparently unable to deal with the dire financial concerns, or stem the continued looting of archaeological sites across the country.
With so many other priorities and nobody clearly in charge, work on the mummies ground to a halt. Scientists on the team moved to positions elsewhere. Gad took up a desk job at the National Research Center, students scattered abroad and plans to search for the mummy of Nefertiti were shelved. Hawass had been the motivating force behind the mummy studies, and he had paid a high price. Now nobody at the antiquities service was interested in the work, or willing to risk approving it.
As we talked, I could see that Gad was upset by the criticisms of his work, and convinced that his results were correct. But with the ancient DNA lab standing empty, he had no way to prove it.
PERHAPS THE CROCODILE GOD, SOBEK, was smiling on Gad. In ancient times, the Egyptians embalmed reptiles as offerings to this ferocious deity. Thousands of years later, researchers in New York and Florida probed some of them with PCR. And to the astonishment of mummy DNA sceptics around the world, they obtained sequences that were undoubtedly crocodile.
The work, carried out in unimpeachable conditions, was published in October 2011, around the same time I met Gad. It was quickly followed by a convincing report of ancient DNA from mummified cats. Together, the two studies swept aside years of bitter argument. Even hardened critics like Gilbert were persuaded that, in some Egyptian mummies, at least, DNA does survive. In just a few months, the prospects for the field were dramatically reversed.
Researchers still argue over the role that contamination might have played in the Tutankhamun study. But the cat and crocodile results prove that Egyptian mummies should be amenable to a new wave of DNA technologies, dubbed next-generation sequencing, that don’t rely on PCR. Instead of amplifying specific target sequences, these methods read millions of small fragments in a sample at once, then use sophisticated computer algorithms to stitch the resulting sequences together. They give a broad picture of all DNA present in a sample, making it easier to spot contamination. Researchers can see if DNA from more than one individual is present, and to check for patterns of damage that you might expect in ancient DNA.
By targeting much shorter sequences, scientists can also probe even older samples, where the DNA is more fragmented, and gain much more detailed data than ever before, including entire genomes. Since 2010, leading ancient DNA labs, including Paabe’s in Leipzig and Willerslev’s in Copenhagen, have been using next-generation sequencing to decipher the genomes of a variety of ancient humans preserved in cold conditions: a 4,000-year-old Palaeo-Eskimo dubbed Saqqaq Man; Denisova Man, a novel human species unearthed in Siberia; and Ã–tzi the Iceman, a 5,300-year-old mummy found frozen in the Central Eastern Alps.
Now we know that DNA does survive in Egyptian animal mummies, using next-generation sequencing to stitch together the DNA of their human counterparts “isn’t rocket science,” says Gilbert. “What limits you is the size of a sample. For Denisova Man they had just a finger bone. Here they have the whole mummy.” In other words, obtaining entire genomes from ancient Egyptians could soon be routine.
The technique promises a far more intimate picture of the pharaohs. If used on Tutankhamun, it would retrieve DNA not just from the king himself but from all of the other organisms associated with his mummy; everything from the contents of his stomach, to the plant products used by his embalmers, to the infections he carried. Gad and his colleagues call it the “ancient Egyptian meta-genome.”
Next-generation sequencing may also transform the search for the genetic origins of the ancient Egyptians. Egyptologists could, in theory, use next-generation sequencing to look at the entire genomes of hundreds or even thousands of individuals: there are certainly enough mummies around. This could radically deepen their understanding of where these populations really came from, and how they moved around over time. For those who are interested in hearing the results, that just might solve the riddle over the pharaohs’ race and ancestry once and for all.
Egypt, though, shows no signs of settling down. This summer, Gad once again experienced the taste of people power. Along with millions of other Egyptians, he had gone on strike and attended demonstrations, this time against the democratically elected leader put in place after the revolution, Mohamed Morsi. Egypt’s army answered their call and forced the new president out.
Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, had come to power in the country’s first free elections in June 2012. But despite this mandate, he soon managed to alienate almost every group in the country. He was widely seen as incompetent and authoritarian. And while his relationship with the antiquities ministry was largely pragmatic, he had unnerved many, including Gad, by appointing a governor for Luxor who had been part of the Islamist terrorist group that massacred tourists there in 1997.
Even though Gad had initially voted for Morsi, he felt anything was better than the old order, he joined the protests against the new president, and supported the army’s action. It was, he says, the only way to defuse what he believed was becoming a fascist regime.
But deposing Morsi has pushed back any prospect of restarting work on the mummies even further than before. Violence between rival factions continues, and Egypt has other priorities right now.
When I speak to Gad on the morning of July 4, just after the army’s dramatic takeover, he is making his way to work at the NRC for the first time in a week. He has just been given another chance to help build the democratic Egypt that he dreams of, but what he feels now is mostly relief that Morsi is gone, rather than the wild rejoicing that followed the fall of Mubarak.
“We’re not so naive this time,” he says. This has been proof to me on a personal level that the path to democracy is long and laborious.”
The same can be said of the road to a pharaoh’s genome. But there could be a second chance there, too. After the revolution, younger members of the Cairo team scattered all over the world to find work. Now they are working with foreign researchers to develop skills that they’ll need for the next phase. And Gad still hopes that if a new, stable government can be set in place, he’ll eventually get permission — and funding — to continue the studies, bringing next-generation sequencing to Tutankhamun and beyond.
“I’m not in a rush,” he says. “I’ve waited a long time. I can wait a few years more.”
The person who will make that decision has not yet been chosen. Waiting in the wings is the old master, Hawass. After a period under investigation during which he was not allowed to leave Egypt, he says he is now free of legal charges, and denies that he was ever close to Mubarak. He has embarked on a worldwide lecture tour, and is publishing a book on Tutankhamun. “I’m the only one who can bring the tourists back,” he told me back in 2011. A new government may yet decide that he is right.
For Tutankhamun himself, revolutions pass like a ripple on the Nile. In the three thousand years since he was buried, empires have risen and fallen; wars and natural disasters have wracked the land; civilizations have sprung up, developed and disappeared; major religions have come into existence and faded away.
Through all of it, in his tomb just in a few feet beneath the earth, this forgotten king has waited for his secrets to be discovered. He lies there still, clinging to his afterlife, a ghost from an ancient world staring up towards the sky.
This story was written by Jo Marchant, edited by Patrick Doyle with Bobbie Johnson, fact-checked by Cameron Bird, copy-edited by Eugene Costello, and proofread by Susie Gordon. Jack Stewart narrated the audio version.