There are stories whose headlines write themselves and this is certainly one of them since it is about a mummy and a mommy. However, it could also be the plot of an archeological fiction mystery since it’s about two men who were thought to be brothers until DNA tests prove that they only shared a mother. Who were their fathers? Why the coverup?
According to a study published in the current edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, the mystery begins in 1907 in an undisturbed tomb near Rifeh, Egypt, that dates back to the 12th Dynasty (1985–1773 BCE). Two coffins were found there by Sir William Flinders Petrie and Ernest Mackay with inscriptions identifying them as Nakht-Ankh and Khnum-Nakht. Further analysis of the inscriptions revealed that Khnum-Nakht, the younger of the two, died first at age 40 and was quickly mummified, while Nakht-Ankh, 20 years older, died six months later but had a longer mummification process indicating possible royalty. The writings also indicated their mother was named Khnum-Aa and their father an unnamed local governor.
They were given the nickname “The Two Brothers,” taken to the Manchester Museum and unwrapped in 1908. That’s when the nickname began to unravel as well. Visual analysis quickly showed discrepancies in the shapes of their skulls and skeletons that caused egyptologists to suspect a mistake or a coverup. However, nothing else in the mummies, coffins or tomb helped prove it one way or another until 2014 when the first DNA tests were performed on the bodies. Those tests showed enough differences in the mitochondrial DNA (from the mother’s side) that some questioned whether they were indeed the sons of Khnum-Aa. That didn’t make sense and added to the mystery.
Fortunately, DNA testing improves constantly and a team at the university headed by archeogeneticist Konstantina Drosou, suspecting that the 2014 samples taken from livers and other internal organs may have been contaminated, was able to extract both mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA (from the father’s side) from both mummies’ teeth – a first in the study of mummies. Did that solve the mystery?
“The presence of identical mtDNAs indicates that Nakht-Ankh and Khnum-Nakht had a maternal relationship, consistent with a shared mother or a more distant kinship relationship such as cousins or uncle-nephew. However, based on the common maternal name as documented in the inscriptional evidence, it can be deduced that the two individuals were both children of Khnum-Aa. The differences between the Y chromosome SNPs indicate different paternal lineages, and so we conclude that Nakht-Ankh and Khnum-Nakht were half-brothers.”
The results, together with the inscriptions on the coffins, also show the importance of maternal lineage in ancient Egypt. Mummy mommy Khnum-Aa was mentioned, but not the fathers, indicating that she may have been of royal lineage but the fathers were not.
Silly headline, important discovery. Isn’t that often the case? With the reinforcement of the power of women in ancient Egypt, perhaps the silly headline should have read, “DNA Proves Mummy Mommies Ruled.”