Three ancient Egyptian mummy faces revealed in stunning reconstruction

How did the ancient Egyptians look like 2,000 years ago? Did they have dark skin and curly hair? A Virginia-based laboratory has successfully recreated the faces of three mummies using their DNA.

The mysteries of ancient Egypt continue to fascinate people all around the world. The iconic pyramids, intricate hieroglyphs, and complex burial rituals have captured the imaginations of scientists and historians for many years.

The Sphinx and the Piramids, Egypt
The Sphinx and the Piramids, famous Wonder of the World, Giza, Egypt. © Anton Aleksenko/Dreamstime

Now, with the help of breakthrough technology, we can get a glimpse of what people from that time period actually looked like. In September 2021, scientists revealed the reconstructed faces of three men who lived in ancient Egypt over 2,000 years ago through digital technology, allowing us to see them as they would have looked when they were 25 years old.

This detailed process, which relied on DNA data extracted from their mummified remains, has given researchers a new window into the lives of ancient Egyptians.

Three ancient Egyptian mummy faces revealed in stunning reconstruction 1
Forensic reconstruction of the mummies JK2911, JK2134 and JK2888. © Parabon NanoLabs

The mummies came from Abusir el-Meleq, an ancient Egyptian city on a floodplain to the south of Cairo, and they were buried between 1380 BC and AD 425. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Tübingen, Germany, sequenced the mummies’ DNA in 2017; it was the first successful reconstruction of an ancient Egyptian mummy’s genome.

Researchers at Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology company in Reston, Virginia, used the genetic data to create 3D models of the mummies’ faces using forensic DNA phenotyping, which uses genetic analysis to predict the shape of facial features and other aspects of a person’s physical appearance.

“This is the first time comprehensive DNA phenotyping has been performed on human DNA of this age,” Parabon representatives said in a statement. Parabon revealed the mummies’ faces on Sept. 15, 2021, at the 32nd International Symposium on Human Identification in Orlando, Florida.

Snapshot, a phenotyping tool developed by scientists, was used to determine the individual’s ancestry, skin color, and facial traits. According to the statement, the men had light brown skin with dark eyes and hair; their genetic composition was closer to that of modern humans in the Mediterranean or the Middle East than it was to that of modern Egyptians.

The researchers then created 3D meshes that outline the mummies’ facial features, as well as heat maps that highlight the variances between the three individuals and refine the details of each face. The results were then blended by Parabon’s forensic artist with Snapshot’s predictions regarding skin, eye, and hair color.

According to Ellen Greytak, Parabon’s director of bioinformatics, working with ancient human DNA can be challenging for two reasons: the DNA is often highly degraded, and it’s usually mixed with bacterial DNA. “Between those two factors, the amount of human DNA available to sequence can be very small,” said Greytak.

Three ancient Egyptian mummy faces revealed in stunning reconstruction 2
© University of California San Francisco

Scientists don’t need the full genome to get a physical picture of a person because the vast majority of DNA is shared by all humans. Rather, they only need to analyze certain specific spots in the genome that differ between people, known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). According to Greytak, many of these SNPs code for physical differences between individuals.

Three ancient Egyptian mummy faces revealed in stunning reconstruction 3
Heat maps of the different faces enabled scientists to refine details and highlight differences in the mummies’ features. © Parabon NanoLabs

However, there are situations when ancient DNA does not contain enough SNPs to pinpoint a specific trait. In such circumstances, scientists can deduce missing genetic material from the values of surrounding SNPs, according to Janet Cady, a Parabon bioinformatics scientist.

Statistics calculated from thousands of genomes demonstrate how strongly related each SNP is with an absent neighbor, Cady explained. The researchers can then create a statistical guess about what the missing SNP was. The procedures utilized on these ancient mummies could also help scientists rebuild faces to identify modern corpses.

So far, nine of the approximately 175 cold cases that Parabon researchers have helped to solve using genetic genealogy have been studied using the methodologies from this study.

It is really fascinating to see these individuals brought back to life 2,000 years later through the use of DNA data and modern technology.

The detail and accuracy of the reconstructions are truly amazing, and we’re excited to see how future advancements in technology can help us better understand our ancient ancestors. 

More information: Parabon® Recreates Egyptian Mummy Faces from Ancient DNA