The FBI has solved the mystery of the identity a 4,000-year-old mummy, after extracting DNA from its tooth.
Since 1915, when the severed head of a mummy was discovered in the corner of a looted tomb in the ancient Egyptian necropolis of Deir el-Bersha, archaeologists have puzzled over its identity. Despite deciphering that the tomb belonged to a governor named Djehutynakht and his wife, they have long deliberated over whose head it was.
“We never knew whether it was Mr Djehutynakht or Mrs Djehutynakht,” says Rita Freed, a curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), that has stored the tomb’s entire contents since 1920.
Now, almost 100 years later, thanks to research by the FBI published last month in the journal Genes, they can definitively say the head was male and that it belonged to the governor himself.
For Freed, this not only marks the culmination of a century-old archaeological enigma, but is also a testament to the technological advances in DNA testing. “We now know the FBI has developed a technique to reconstruct the very most degraded DNA. If they can reconstruct DNA from a 4,000-year-old tooth, they can reconstruct it from just about anything,” she says.
The damage endured by the mummified head made it even more difficult to analyze. It was found at the bottom of a 30ft pit, in a tomb that had been ransacked and robbed in antiquity. The looters had stolen most of the jewelry and precious metals, dislodging the couple’s corpses in the process. The decapitated head was found on top of the governor’s coffin.